October 21, 2019

A Bit of Beef: local, grass-fed and environmentally sustainable?

After the release of dubious statistics & reports in the mainstream media, we decided to profile our local food production system.

Written by: Ben Powell – Neil Powell Butchers

Having spent the majority of my life living on a farm in Herefordshire and being involved in our family butchery business for almost as long, I feel well placed to have a perspective on our farming and processing practices.

Utilising permanent pastures and sympathetically rotating land use with the inclusion of livestock represents a traditional and holistic land management approach that allows for nature to be in balance with food production systems. The result is a very effective and environmentally friendly process which produces high yields and high quality, healthy food produce.

We source our beef predominantly from one farm in Herefordshire where these practices have been used for generations.

Permanent pastures are globally acknowledged as one of our most valuable carbon stores, through carbon sequestration. It is the natural process by which carbon is taken out of the air and held by soil microbes which utilise it as energy for grasses. Up to 40% of all carbon entering the soil on this pasture land is bound and stored.

Grazing cattle on these pastures allows grasses to stay healthy while stimulating it to grow. This results in enhanced photosynthesis and consequently thereafter carbon sequestration. The byproduct of grazing is manure and methane. Manure is utilised by the land as a high-quality natural fertiliser. Methane is emitted and recovered by the growing grasses in a symbiotic cycle dependent upon stocking density.

The food climate research network recommend that for soils to be sequestering more carbon than is emitted a density of one animal per 2.47 acres is required.

The approximate stocking density on our Herefordshire beef farm (2018 / 2019) is one animal per 1.5 acres. This is below a carbon-negative density, but several other factors contribute to a negative carbon effect, offsetting these emissions, such as trees and hedgerows. As a part of the stewardship scheme hedgerows are deeper and allowed to grow for longer, and allow for the natural growth of native tree species.

Grass on which the cattle graze utilises the sun and methane/carbon dioxide to produce the plant-based material cellulose. This is a food source that cattle have evolved to utilise, that humans cannot. Cattle up-cycle cellulose into a bioavailable & nutrient-dense unprocessed food- beef!

It is then important to consider food miles, which can have a considerable cumulative effect on carbon levels. In our local food cycle 300kg of beef product that is sourced in Herefordshire, taken to a small local abattoir and back to us, results in a round trip of (cumulative) 3.4 miles per animal, that’s 3. 4 miles per 300kg of beef and byproduct!

Our mission is to quantify and publish the carbon footprint of our local food production system. I am convinced that it will be quite different from the reports that many may have been exposed to in the mainstream media.

Grazing ruminants like cattle are considered by many to be a part of the solution to climate change. Nature is self-organising and when all the elements of biodiversity and the ecosystem are in health, and farmers can do this within their food production systems, then this invariably is good for both the environment and for our health.

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