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Saving the planet… with cows? [WFJ #15]
Cattle is often public enemy no.1 when it comes to climate change, but some local farmers are producing beef in a way that benefits the environment
Cows will be the death of us. Or so we're told.
And cattle, so goes the narrative, are a huge part of the problem. Along with other livestock, some sources suggest cows are responsible for 14% of the greenhouse gas emissions instigating global warming, not to mention the unquantifiable effects of cattle lots, fertilisers, deforestation, and nitrogen runoffs on local wildlife.
While yes, rampant, unbridled beef and dairy production is no doubt an issue, really we should be asking ourselves who is managing those animals, and how they’re doing it.
For the most part, that’s farmers with one specific target – to produce milk or beef as cheaply and in as much quantity as possible, whatever the environmental costs. For a cohort of other farmers, though they number relatively very few, the food the cows create is just as, if not less, important than the benefits they bring to nature.
You heard right – when managed in a certain way, cattle can help store carbon in the soil under them, facilitate biodiversity, and (by no coincidence) provide some of the best-tasting meat at the end of it.
At East Hill Farm on Salisbury Plain, Frankie Guy’s 300 cows are involved in a conservation programme to promote diversity on the grassland. “On the conservation areas, you don't want the grass to grow too much,” she says. “So if you go in in the spring and graze it down really hard, it gets rid of the competitive grass and helps the more delicate species that take longer to come through.”
Salisbury Plain is the largest chalk grassland area in western Europe. A Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it hosts up to 40 different types of plants per square metre. 13 of the plant species on the plain are, to varying degrees, hard to come by in the rest of the country, and support wildlife like the cuckoo bee, scarce forester moth, brown hairstreak butterfly, and – unique to Salisbury Plain – the sainfoin blunthorn bee, which feeds on the pink-flowered sainfoin. 1
A recent report co-led by the Buglife charity found that flying insect populations in the UK have experienced a 60% decline in the last 17 years. One of the main culprits? Intensive agriculture – namely, the use of pesticides. Not only do these exterminate insects, they have a knock-on effect with the species that rely on them for food. The opposite certainly shows on the plain, which has widely escaped the use of agrochemicals because of the Ministry of Defence’s training exercises here.
“The nature element was born out of the fact the army doesn't let anyone on there doing things intensively,” says Frankie. “If the MoD weren't on there, it would look like everywhere else – it would have been ploughed up and used for food production. But because of the fauna and flora it supports, it shouldn't be taken into productive agriculture as chalk grassland is so rare.”2
Regenerating the land with ruminants
Cows, we’ve established, can play a role in a natural ecosystem. But they can also be a part of reversing the damage intensive agriculture has wrought on soils and, by extension, virtually everything that relies on them.
In 2020, Hannah Steenbergen moved her small herd of Shetland cows onto Holt farm, in Witham Friary eight miles south of Frome. Since the land was previously used by a conventional dairy farmer, it might sound absurd using cows to undo the issues cows created. But that’s exactly what Hannah’s trying to do.
“We have Grade 4 soil here, which is the worst,” she says.3 “The past farmers ploughed up the land and were growing crops and it's had a very negative effect.” Where the areas of the farm used to graze cattle were temporary, Hannah is turning these into permanent pastureland.
“We are reseeding them with native species of legumes, herbs, and flowers, which will persist,” she says. A greater diversity and quality of these deeper-rooting plants helps bring up more nutrients, which benefits a larger breadth of species, and provides better water retention in the ground.
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On top of that, the cows themselves are helping enrich the soil through their grazing habits and manure. “Even their saliva has a microbial quality which interacts with the soil life,” Hannah says. The better the soil’s health, the better equipped it is to perform carbon sequestration – a process that removes carbon from the atmosphere and stores it in the soil.
This is the basis of what people are calling ‘regenerative agriculture’, where farming – not exclusively livestock – is designed to promote soil and nature recovery while producing high quality food. “It’s about trying to leave the land and ecosystem in a better state for future generations,” Hannah says. “Instead of taking things away from the land and ecosystem, we're trying to rebuild it so it works naturally, with as few inputs as possible, and with as much biodiversity as possible.
“Regenerative farming can actually help with the larger issues of emissions and climate change, and at the same time it's not relying on imports from other countries and exporting our food production problems onto other people. We're being resilient and building soil and we can repair the ecosystems with animals and trees and crops if they're combined with the right balance.”
There are caveats with regenerative agriculture, like its reliance on the savvy management of the land, or as Frankie says, “doing the right thing on the right landscape”. Where Frankie’s putting cows on conservation areas to graze aggressively, if Hannah did the same it would have a detrimental effect. Instead, she moves her herd once and sometimes twice a day, meaning shorter grazing periods to allow flora to recover.
“The benefit of that is the roots of the plants go deeper, and they have more interactions with the soil – that is really where the impact is happening,” says Hannah. “Keep taking leaves off a plant and it's going to have to get the energy from somewhere to regrow, so it'll take from its root reserves, and might even start to lose them.”
As well as conservation grazing, Frankie is also farming regeneratively on other, ‘improved grassland’, areas of the 1,557-acres she manages. “It's about keeping diversity there, keeping the soil covered and producing food on it while not doing harm and benefiting nature rather than using chemicals and planting something pollinators don't like,” she says.
As to where the beef ends up from the farm, this, as Frankie says, “is the sad bit of the story”. In an ideal world, Frankie would be sending her cows directly to independent local abattoirs. But as she’s operating at such scale, there’s currently not much option but to sell them to a large chain that’ll keep them in sheds (something they never do on the farm) for three months before they're processed for Tesco’s meat aisle. “People get to play bingo whenever they go to Tesco, and might get an awesome steak from me, which is going to be next to something that's not as well produced. It annoys me, and I don't have the time or energy to change it. That’s the reality of farming.”
The good news, at least, is smaller scale farmers like Hannah are better able to shift their beef locally and directly. In Hannah’s case, via her own delivery service (if you order from Meadowsweet, most likely it’ll be her knocking on your door with a box of beef) and, on occasion, at local farmers’ markets. But, the kicker – does it actually taste good? “I think it does,” Hannah says. “And I've had some really nice feedback from people who try it.”4
A chance, perhaps, to test the theory that flavour and wholesomeness is not necessarily from what you eat – but from what you eat eats.
Fun fact: According to the Journal of Animal Ecology, the dung of a single outdoor cow feeds 2.2 million insects per year: https://www.countrylife.co.uk/nature/john-lewis-stempel-birds-nests-wool-and-how-the-dung-of-a-single-outdoor-cow-feeds-2-2-million-insects-per-year-242424
By the way, it’s worth checking out Frankie’s Instagram, where she talks about armoured personnel carriers as scratching posts, what flora comes up on Salisbury plain and what creatures it attracts, what it's like to take over your parents’ farm, the mental health struggles farmers undergo, how cows get their nails clipped, and what happens to a calf’s placenta: https://www.instagram.com/farfromthemaddingcows/
Having tasted Meadowsweet’s beef topside, yes, it’s got more depth of flavour than what I’d usually find at a butchers. It’s also, within reason, dearer. One day I’ll be better at convincing my partner that this is a price worth paying…