Making the most of our natural capital

Issues facing agriculture today are well-documented, perhaps the main conflict being between producing enough food for a growing population and the need to reduce our impacts on the natural environment. Ruminant production has come under close scrutiny, particularly in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, competition for human-edible food and natural habitat losses. Debates revolve around whether intensive indoor systems to meet growing global consumer demand or extensive outdoor systems and a consequent reduction in the consumption of animal products are the answer. On whichever side of the debate you fall, pasture-based ruminant production offers many benefits.

Of course, ruminant production can make readily available, human-edible protein from grass, which we could not otherwise access. In addition, grass-fed ruminants seem to offer better health benefits to their human consumers than concentrate-fed. For example, recent studies led by Newcastle University showed that organically produced meat and milk have higher levels of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids than conventionally produced. This was largely attributed to the benefits of outdoor-rearing on pasture.

Grasslands offer a variety of ecosystem services. As well as provisioning services such as food, fibre and fuel, which are easily valued commodities, grasslands may also offer other not so easily valued services, such as biodiversity and genetic resources, carbon storage, flood defence, pollution control, amenity and aesthetic appeal. With the impending release of the Natural Capital Protocol such benefits are likely to become increasingly recognised and more highly valued. The Protocol has been developed over a number of years to be a tool that businesses can use to determine the value of and impacts on non-provisioning ecosystem services (i.e. those not providing human food) relevant to their sector. They are producing guides to help interpret the Protocol for specific sectors, with Food and Beverage being one of the first. As such, it is likely that this will further emphasise accounting for non-provisioning ecosystem services in food production.

Grasslands are maintained by grazing animals but managing pasture for ruminant production does not necessarily produce the kinds of grasslands that offer the best advantages in terms of non-provisioning ecosystem services. For example, ploughing and seeding new leys will not store carbon as effectively as a permanent pasture and the soils are likely to be less healthy, in terms of structure and biodiversity; and more easily eroded. They are also likely to be more expensive to produce and maintain than a permanent pasture.

According to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment most ecosystem services of grasslands increase with greater sward diversity but livestock production decreases. However, there is evidence from research projects such as Multisward, to suggest that mixed swards can also generate higher yields of forage and milk per cow than grass monocultures. Of course, it is not as simple as just including more species in your grassland. Which species/mixtures are most useful and are they appropriate for every situation? How should grasslands be managed to retain the best sward composition? Can you achieve a suitable balance between managing grasslands for ruminant production and for other ecosystem services? Does the animal breed make a difference? While we cannot give definitive answers to these questions, they may be different for each individual situation; the online training offered by AFTP will help you to develop your own answers for your own situation. The Grassland Systems and Agro-ecosystem Services modules start in September 2017, while the Organic and Low Input Ruminant Production module begins in May 2018.

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