There have been some interesting news stories over the past few weeks. I have been saving them up so they will all go into this post – it’s a slightly scatter-gun approach but bear with me.
The cost of producing livestock in the UK continues to climb – the historically high fuel prices mean anything that needs to be delivered is going to cost more, but there’s also a knock-on effect on the price of artificial fertiliser, which is produced using large amounts of fossil fuels. Fertiliser is now over £300 per tonne – that is a huge cost for the average farmer managing their grasslands intensively (which can mean applying 300 or 400kg per hectare every year).
People are eating less red meat – there was a sharp drop in consumption in January – prices are climbing, in part due to the costs of inputs and transport.
The debate about how to reform the Common Agricultural Policy seems to be heating up – Defra Secretary of State Caroline Spelman has rowed back from her previous position that direct payments should be abolished. This may have as much to do with politics as policy – the UK will above all want a place at the EC table where the decisions will be taken rather than being seen to be too radical and therefore excluded from the discussions.The UK are still arguing for more fundamental reform of the CAP, but it looks increasingly likely that the reforms will be more muted this time round, focussing on creating a fairer system for sharing CAP funds between all member states.
A European Parliament report has supported proposals to focus environmental payments through Pillar 2 (agri-environment schemes) rather than “greening” pillar 1 (we are advocating greening pillar 1 by improving the way the current permanent pasture rules work, as I previously blogged). The NFU supports the Pillar 2 approach, because all Pillar 2 measures are voluntary, whereas tying environmental measures to Pillar 1 means they affect all farmers receiving single payment.
Another European Parliament report recommends that Europe grows more protein crops for animal feed and stops importing so much from places like the US Brazil or Argentina. According to this report, currently the EU imports 80% of the protein fed to farm animals. This was a major issue that the Sustainable Livestock Bill aimed to address – see previous blogs on this. Liberal Democrat MEP and Agriculture Committee member George Lyon has implored the EC not to reduce trade barriers preventing Europe from being flooded with cheap south American beef. Mr Lyon talks of the risks to the future of high quality beef produced in particular in the uplands of Scotland.
On a related theme, at the National Forage Conference, farmers were told to start treating dairy cows as ruminants instead of pigs – a reasonable request you may think. This fascinating article informs us, amongst other things, what is the shape of the perfect cow pat! Interestingly the lecturer, a nutritionist was advising dairy farmers to reduce the amount of protein in cow’s feed, and make sure the cows were getting enough roughage, just the sort of thing now missing from intensively managed pastures and silage.
Another article reporting from the same conference looks at the cost of feeding dairy cows mainly from forage (ie cows actually grazing grass in fields) compared with bought-in feed. Bought-in feed costs can be as much as 50% of all costs of producing milk, while the report also noted that cows fed on a low-forage diet showed 5% more lameness than cows grazing in fields.
Meanwhile research reported last week, finds that growing a mixture of 10 species of legume (pea family) and 4 agricultural grasses, most effectively increases the fertility of grassland soils. The thing which did surprise me was the researchers advocating bird’s-foot trefoil (a traditional crop legume) and also black medick-the lovely little yellow-flowered plant, usually found on downland.
Latest land-use figures from Defra show the amount of hay produced in 2010 was 2.7 million tonnes – 6% down on the previous year while silage production rose by 6%. 2.7 million tonnes of hay sounds like a lot, but compared with 41.8 million tonnes of silage from grass and another 6.2 million tonnes of ensiled arable crops, the long-term decline in hay-making continues. Hay making is a far more wildlife-friendly management for grasslands than silage making.
On that point, I got this information from Defra recently:
|Year||Total Permanent Pasture (ha)||Total Agricultural Land declared (ha)|
Permanent pasture in England increased hugely last year – by 175000ha. This must be great news surely? – remember there are only 100,000ha of semi-natural grassland in England, so I’m out of a job right? Sadly no. Permanent pasture in England includes anything with some grass on it from a SSSI downland through to a field of rye-grass sown the previous day. The jump probably has more to do with land coming out of set-aside in 2005 and qualifying as permanent pasture after 5 years without an arable crop.
So – what does all this add up to, apart from a rather incoherent blog post. Input costs are soaring (including all that imported protein) , people are eating less red meat, cheap imported beef is coming, threatening domestic beef production. CAP reform will happen, if not this time, then next (Europe cannot afford to continue paying out 45% of its income on farming). Dairy cows are being treated like pigs, when they could be out in fields eating a variety of grasses and legumes. Hay-making is all but gone yet there’s more permanent pasture than ever. Add to that the fact that of the livestock sector only dairy farmers make any profit over and above the income from the CAP, and it seems clear to me that our livestock farming system is in deep trouble.
What’s the answer? Livestock farming needs (has) to move to a lower intensity production system, which relies less on imports or inputs. Produce fewer higher quality animals (or dairy products), and get paid (from what currently goes as single payment) for maximising the other benefits that extensive land management provides – from biodiversity, to clean water, to carbon sequestration and so on. We as consumers also need to accept that we will have to pay more for eating less red meat, because we also need to support those other services provided by the farmer. And we need to choose to buy the best, not the cheapest. This will probably be the most difficult change to happen.