The Climate Change Challenge – Vice President’s Blog – 22 September 2020

Climate change is an extremely complex topic, and the more you learn and understand about it, the more confusing it becomes writes Vice President Martin Kennedy.

NFU Scotland recently held its first meeting of our climate change advisory panel, made up of very capable academics and very capable and practical farmers. I have the privilege of chairing this panel and look forward to the outcomes and advice which will be produced over the next two or three years.

Every industry needs to do what it can to reduce emissions and agriculture is no different. We have come a long way since the baseline of 1990 but we must continue to act quickly if we are to contribute the real challenge of 75 percent reduction in emissions for the whole Scottish economy by 2030.

But it’s not as simple as looking solely at emissions and we must be extremely careful not to look at either sectors or systems in silos. We must look at the bigger picture and take a more holistic view of food production, especially in Scotland.

Three things top the agenda, all with equal importance. Food production (brought into increasingly sharp focus by the ongoing pandemic), climate change and our precious environment. If we take a more holistic approach to our future policy then each one of these has the potential to enhance the other two.  If we don’t take that approach then we seriously risk losing what we already have and, in global terms, Scotland’s starting position is good and the envy of many.

Take for example emissions from the beef sector.  If we look at the carbon footprint of various beef systems, one of the most efficient is bull beef.  These animals have a shorter time on farm from birth to slaughter because their growth and finishing rate, so their methane emissions are greatly reduced.

On this evidence alone, you could argue that this is the way forward as it immediately ticks the climate change box.

However, as we all know, it’s not as simple as that. When you look at extensively grazed cattle that take much longer to mature and are inevitably producing more methane, you would think this is both inefficient and adds to the climate change problem.  The reality is these cattle are doing a fantastic job of enhancing biodiversity and maintaining grazed hillsides in a carbon sequestrating state by keeping them green.  They keep scrub in check, controlling the massive carbon loss that can occur when wildfires take hold.

So understandably you would ask the question, which is the best form of beef production from a climate change perspective? The answer is both.

Because of Scotland’s unique topography and the variances in climate enjoyed in the north, south, east and west of the country, each area and type of animal bring different benefits for different reasons.

In our own situation we are split here at Lurgan.  Our continental cross cattle perform well and the calves generally reach a relatively good price at around 11 - 13 months of age, but there’s a lot of cost and effort goes into keeping these cows for a year prior to selling the calves. The Highland cows however cost a fraction of the amount to keep and are much less time consuming albeit we get less for the calves. So, in effect the margins are the same and from a profitability point of view there’s nothing in it.

So, from a climate change perspective, should we simply forget about the continental cows, because if the margin is the same why have the extra effort especially if the Highlanders are equally beneficial to the environment? The answer is no, for a whole raft of reasons.

Because we have the continental cows on the farm, we make a considerable amount of homegrown silage, encouraging us to look after our soil health to maximise our productivity. The fact we make silage also helps to finish some lambs on foggage before the rest eventually go onto rape or kale, which has been grown on land that has had dung spread on it the previous year from the sheds where the continental cows were kept all winter. Dung provides a lot of potash which kale requires a lot of.  The better the crop of kale, the more lambs it will finish.  The more lambs the kale supports, the more sheep dung there is to provide an ideal establishment for young grass to grow silage for a few years to come, to feed the continental and Highland cows. So hopefully, by now, you get the picture that this not a binary choice.

My own scenario highlights the complexities of the subject and there are dozens more.  However, judging by the capabilities of this newly appointed NFUS climate change panel, I’m sure we will understand more about the subject.

That will allow us to make informed policy decisions in the future that will give all three priorities the respect they deserve.

Scotland is starting from a good position and, from a climate change perspective, we want a future policy that promotes food production systems here, reducing our reliance on imports from countries where none of the topics I’ve highlighted are deemed important.

Author: Martin Kennedy

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Jane Cooper

1309 days ago

Very interesting. Good to see soil health being mentioned.
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About The Author

Martin Kennedy

Martin is a tenant farmer in Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire and farms with his wife Jane and three daughters. They have 600 ewes and 60 cows on the farm rising from 800ft to 2,500ft. Martin served two years as Highland Perthshire Branch chair, before representing East Central region on the LFA committee in 2009. Martin went on to be Vice-Chair before chairing the committee for three years. He was elected Vice-President in 2017 and elected as President in 2021.

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