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Eddie Gillanders: Pointing the finger at farming community over livestock emissions is unfair and misleading

By Eddie Gillanders

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FARMERS are getting fed up being told of the contribution they will be expected to make to reduce carbon emissions to meet the Scottish Government’s ambitious target of a 75 per cent reduction by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2045.

The finger is being pointed at livestock farming in particular.
The finger is being pointed at livestock farming in particular.

The finger is being pointed at livestock farming in particular which farmers claim is grossly unfair as the industry has made tremendous strides in reducing emissions in recent years and emission figures for livestock take no account of the sequestration of carbon.

Farmers also feel the big industrial emitters are dodging the issue by buying carbon credits rather than reducing their own carbon emissions. Some farmers obviously benefit from this trading but may jeopardise their business in the longer-term.

The scientific evidence for climate change is indisputable according to scientists and this was explained in great detail by Prof Peter Smith, professor of soils and global change at Aberdeen University, speaking at a recent meeting of the Aberdeen Climate Action group.

He called for a reduction in ruminant livestock numbers, reduced nitrogen use, action to improve soil organic matter, reduced tillage, new dietary additives and the creation of carbon sinks in the form of trees, hedgerows and soils.

He questioned the role of grass in carbon sequestration, pointing out that most grasses were close to saturation and unable to sequestrate any more carbon, thus completely undermining the argument farmers cling to that the carbon emissions from grazing livestock are minimal because of sequestration by grass.

Which perhaps explains why senior civil servants in the government’s agricultural department have been advocating a 30 per cent decrease in the national cattle herd which is not only the cornerstone of Scotland’s meat industry but the key to the rural economy in many parts of Scotland, particularly in the North-east and Highlands.

The discussion was, however, balanced by another speaker, New Zealand-born farmer and former economist with Scotland’s rural college, Roger Polson, who was brave enough to step into the lion’s den, and explain how he had managed to reduce the carbon footprint of his farm of Knock, near Huntly, to net zero without decimating his suckler cow herd and livestock enterprise.

Roger Polson has made great strides with his farm near Huntly. Picture: Ian Simpson
Roger Polson has made great strides with his farm near Huntly. Picture: Ian Simpson

He said he had started out with very clear objectives when the family made the decision to adopt organic farming.

These were:

Survive as a business.

Provide a fair living for the family.

Continue to maintain and improve the quality, biodiversity and amenity of the soils, landscape and habitats on the farm while maintaining a mixed farming system.

He paid tribute to father-in-law, the late John McNicol, who kept the farm in good heart by carrying out extensive drainage and land improvement but had always respected the science of soil management.

Today, 40 per cent of Knock Farm is in arable rotation, 7 per cent is permanent grass, 20 per cent rough grazing of which 32 per cent is part of a site of special scientific interest (SSSI), and 10 per cent is managed for commercial forestry.

A quarter of the arm is managed primarily for nature/conservation and is not grazed or ploughed. This includes moorland areas where stock have been removed to allow trees to re-establish and will be used as grazed moorland in the future.

The arable land is farmed in a rotation of two or three years crop and back to grass/clover leys for five years. Barley is grown for both malting and animal feed and beans, peas and buckwheat are also grown.

The farm supports a herd of suckler cows and breeding ewes with all replacements bred on the farm. No cattle have been brought on to the farm since 1996 and no sheep since 1919, apart from breeding males.

Roger started the nutrient budgeting of nitrogen, phosphate and potash as far back as 2003 and was immediately struck in horror about the amount of nutrients being wasted, particularly nitrogen, only 20 per cent of which went off the farm in protein in the form of livestock or barley. This persuaded him to adopt organic farming.

Stock numbers and the cropping were reduced initially and by 2007 nitrogen use had fallen from 38.3 tonnes to 15.7 tonnes but output had also fallen from 7.8 tonnes to 2.8 tonnes.

But most nitrogen was atmospheric depositions or fixation by legumes rather than bought-in artificial fertiliser.

An early study showed the farm was emitting 921 tonnes of carbon and sequestrating only 441 tonnes but tree planting soon helped to increase sequestrations to 1100 tonnes and today the carbon footprint of the farm is still positive despite livestock numbers increasing again.

“I cannot understand,” Roger said, “how the grazing animal can be so negatively considered in the fight to halt the rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions. Ruminants have been emitting methane and carbon dioxide to feed plants that in turn feed animals since time immemorial. Only one thing has changed and that is the release of fossilised carbon in the form of coal, oil and natural gas.”

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