Monday, 15 March 2010

Do You want Grass Fed Milk in Wales...A response to the Welsh Assembly Report on Climate Change

Last week the Welsh Assembly released a report on the future of Agriculture in Wales. This report has serious implications for all Welsh (probably all UK dairy Farmers too) dairy farmers as Prof Gareth Wyn Jones & his research group has recommended fully housed dairy cows 365 days a year. Wales has an international obligation to reduce CO2 emissions. The Welsh Farmers Union has agreed to senario 5 which includes fully housing cows in the near future....this is a surprise & one wonders how they made this decision!
Tough decisions need to be made about how Agriculture must change to reduce CO2 emissions.
But are you part of the food debate?

Will the public accept dairy cows being housed full time?

Or do you want Milk & Dairy Products to come from grass fed cows out grazing pasture?
You need to have your say! What do you want to happen to dairying in Wales & the UK?
The Key points I want to make on behalf of the low input pasture based dairy farmers are :-

1. Wales has a Comparative Economic Advantage in pasture based systems of dairying....Wales has NO comparative Economic Advantage in growing either cereal crops or protein crops such as soya nor any advantages in fully housed TMR dairying....not now & not I suspect anytime in the future. TMR rarely includes fresh pasture & is heavily reliant on cereals & imported protein from Brasil & Argentina.
2. Currently the financial returns on high input systems are very marginal. This will rapidly deteriorate as world agriculture struggles to meet human food demands & renewable energy production. What the Americans refer to as the "Perfect Storm"!
Within decades world Agriculture will struggle to fed the world population.
I would expect world cereal & protein prices to rapidly escalate & even be in short supply. This would leave the Welsh dairy farmers extremely vulnerable to outside price fluctuations. Wales produces primarily manufactured dairy products.

3. Given the expectation of the world facing chronic food & water shortages surely we should be looking forward to the dairy export opportunities that Wales will be able to capitalise on if we can operate successfully in new environmental constraints. In fact we could argue that Wales has a moral obligation to help feed the world as Wales may well be advantaged by global warming cf to Africa & the countries such as Australia who are already extremely vulnerable to droughts & water shortages.

4. We accept that Wales MUST change. Not changing is not an option. However we believe that many of the points made in the Welsh Assembly report have already been implemented on farm by the innovative grass based dairy farmers in the Discussion Groups.
For example....they all calve heifers at 22 months of age. The fertility of these same herds is such that the average number of lactations is in excess of 5 lactations per cow. Compare this to the UK average of approx 2.5 lactations.
The current average production in Wales is approx 6200 litres (from 2 tonnes of concentrates per cow). If we assume say 3 lactations then the total lifetime production is approx 18600litres. The grass based dairy farmers average say 5200litres X 5 lactations = 26000 litres lifetime production. ie +40%.

5. Most of the information/technology is already available to assist Wales & Welsh dairy farmers to make significant & profitable changes to their businesses NOW which would result in major reductions in CO2 Calving heifers at 22 months, improve fertility by cross breeding to highly fertile breeds, reductions in Nitrogen fertilizer & reduction in purchased cereals & replace with home grown pasture. Block calving both autumn & spring are essential.
The way to get this adoption on farm is through effective Discussion Groups on farm with highly effective professional group facilitation. It would require the commitment of farmers, Welsh Assembly & the dairy processors.
6. We acknowledge serious problems with both the lack of pasture based research & current deficiencies with the IPPC systems of calculation CO2 emissions & LCA. The current inventories neglect the imported dairy food rations & the LCA in the country of origin. They also severely under estimate the LCA CO2 emissions of farm buildings, concrete & farm machinery.

7. To address the lack of pasture based research issue I would urge both Research & the Welsh Assembly to work with say 20 of these efficient pasture based dairy farmers to initiate on farm data collection & on farm research projects to collect the "gap" information. In a similar way that Dr Christina Marley is already doing with pasture based emissions. I am sure the top 20 farmers....both conventional & organic would in fact volunteer themselves into such a project.
One obvious starting point would be the measurement of 30cm Soil Carbon Baselining of soils under intensive grazing. This baselining data should include separate 'A Horizon' (Top Soil) depth measurements.

8. Can I both support the report in regard to on farm forestry & tree planting. This could be implemented immediately by the Welsh Assembly using the Australian Landcare movement as a very good & effective model. In Australia this has been fully accepted & adopted by the farming community ( there are even urban programs too) with millions of trees being planted each year on farm to the benefit of both the farm businesses & the environment.

9. NZ research by Dr Garry Waghorn et el at AgResearch has shown that when LCA is included (rather than methane alone) pasture based diets when harvested directly by the grazing dairy cow are likely to have lower total emissions than TMR systems.............& this does not include Soya from Argentina as NZ can grow their own protein crops.
Much of the research & press reports when referring to methane from pasture in fact refer to some early work in Queensland Australia that compared dry unimproved Rangeland grasslands with grain (grain can not be fed alone as in a TMR it requires the addition of roughage.)

10. We acknowledge the difficulties in measuring soil carbon. However we suggest further research & a National Soil Carbon Strategy rather than the exclusion out of the report due to lack of data. The following websites from Australia illustrate possible options for Wales & the UK.
Every day I see permanent pasture based dairy farmers making significant progress toward what they refer to as "healthy soils"...this is a rapid build up of Organic Matter in the Top Soil & a dramatic increase in "Soil life & activity".
As Pasture Dry Matter Production increases so does the soil activity increase............this needs to be measured & monitored so that farmers can off set their carbon emissions. Average Discussion Group pasture production is approx 10 T DM/ha consumed (by grazing dairy cows) compared to an estimated UK average of less than 5 T DM/ha. The organic farms I see average between 7-8 T DM/ha. What I dont think is being acknowledged is the increase in top soil depth.
I accept the need for more research.

11. It is very important that the Welsh Assembly appreciate firstly that farmers want to be environmentally seen as "being green". The farming families want to leave the farm & the land to the next generation in a better condition than they themselves inherited the land.
But it is very important that Government understand that :-
"It is very hard to be green when your business is in the red"
Environmental programs & initiatives will be implemented by profitable dairy farm businesses as soon as possible.
Already there is a strenuous effort being made by pasture based low input farms to reduce fuel use, electricity thru technologies such as "Varivac...Variable speed vacumn pump & milk pump control systems." All efforts are being made to fully investigate on farm energy generation such as wind power by the progressive Discussion Group members.

12. Lastly I'm hoping that this is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue between pasture based dairy farmers, research,the authors of this report & the Welsh Assembly.
What do you think?


  1. Hi from Australia. I agree with your comments regarding industrial agriculture, especially regarding domesticated livestock. May I suggest that it is not the animals themselves that are the problem? Rather it is how we humans are managing them.

    Healthy well managed animals grazing on well managed pastures will have massive positive impacts on climate, biodiversity, and human health. Please remember that some 2 billion people, the “bottom” third of our species, are almost totally dependent on domesticated livestock for their very existence. Domestic livestock are not just about feeding the affluent developed nations.

    Methane is produced by bacteria in the rumen of all ruminant animals, a group which includes camels, wildebeest, alpacas, bison, mountain goats and 90+ species of antelope, as well as domesticated cattle, sheep and goats. This link is to some very interesting (and to my way of thinking inherently logical and natural) research that shows that different bacteria in the soil under the cattle oxidize more methane in a single day than the cow emits in a whole year.

    There is also large potential to sequester carbon in our grazing lands globally, as well as the unrecognised positive impact on surface reflectivity (albedo) that comes from restoring degraded grasslands. this is because grass has a 60% higher albedo than bare ground.

    Professor Tim Flannery has stated that sequestering carbon into the soils of our grazing lands is one of the best means we have available to us for dealing with climate change. We have been raising awareness of the role of building soil carbon from a climate change perspective – but as you will see when you look through the presentation on our website the real outcome of changing management is three-fold – healthy environment, healthy financials, and healthy society.

  2. I can not agree more with you Tom. Gelli Aur is going to be doing some work with the Wales Climate Centre on carbon monitoring of the two herds, looking at the different levels of emissions on the two different management systems. We can not allow the lack of research to take away our competitiveness. Keep up the good work.

  3. I particularly like the comparitive photos- Tom. The housed cow argument is far to simnplistic and doesn't taker into account chinas demand for proitein, esculating energy costs and if your going to house cows you need high maize yields something you can do in the east of the Uk not so much in the west