Report Synopsis

Powering Pasture and the relevance of red meat in the 21st century

Alex Brewster (2016 NSch)

The author farms at Rotmell, in the Highlands of Scotland, where Less Favoured Area farming has always been a challenge, limited by topography and dictated by climate.

With less than 13 per cent of the land mass farmed by the author designated as ‘improved pasture’, cultivating his way out of trouble cannot be seen as an option. The intention of the study was to look for a way to increase profitability and create a more robust business model that would be more resilient to external pressures.

The study began with the author convinced that the science of genetics would hold many of the answers. But the conclusion is that this is only partly right. For any genetic gain to be able to express itself in the animal you have to able to feed it. The more consistent the pasture, and the higher the quality, the greater the economic gain. The vital factor in achieving this is soil health and fertility.

This Nuffield Farming study tour commenced by visiting many of the great research institutes in the UK: the technology and scientific understanding found there were inspiring. However, once on the road and physically in the fields of three continents, the best operators were found to be people who understood the simple limits of their environment. They accepted these limits and then managed them to their advantage.

Farming is limited by the biological communities living in the soil. It is the biology in the soil that brings a greater resilience to land performance. It allows us to harvest and store more energy from the sun and rain. If the biology in the soil is enhanced it will host a greater number of beneficial bacteria and other forms of microorganism which have evolved to form mutualistic and symbiotic relationships with the botany that surrounds them.

Through his study the author has concluded that a greater range of diversity brings a biological and genetic robustness that cannot be so easily undone by natural forces. Farmers manage a food chain and it starts beneath their feet: in essence an energy cycle. Building this biomass increases soil’s organic matter and this is what ‘powers pasture’. It creates a greater nutrient density in plants which in turn increases live weight gain and reduces nutritional stress to both plant and animal. All of this aid’s fertility: enhanced fertility is a key driver in farm profitability.

Our herbivores are an energy transfer system, biologically linked to the pasturelands and soils. Is it any coincidence that rumen and soil pH are aligned? Ryegrass is thought to have evolved 72 million years ago. Animals were needed to graze it and thus play their part in completing the nutrient cycles. To understand the relevance of red meat in the 21st century, there is a need for a deeper understanding of these biological processes at work and building pasture management systems that allow grasses to be themselves: the controllers of the ecosystem. The future looks good and tastes better!

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