A combination of manage-ment and genetic changes can reduce the carbon footprint of an individual UK suckler unit by up to 40 per cent while contributing to beef production efficiencies, shows data from a lifecycle analysis by Alltech E-CO2 and Stabiliser Cattle Company.
“The UK suckler industry is under immense pressure to reduce its carbon footprint while still feeding a growing population in a financially feasible way,” says Seth Wareing, Business Manager of Stabiliser Cattle Company. “While the strength of the suckler industry is converting grassland unsuitable for growing crops into a high-quality protein for human consumption, there is room to do this more efficiently from both an environmental and financial standpoint.”
But in a diverse industry with many individual farm variables, how should this be done?
Benchmarking 12 different suck-ler herd system scenarios using industry performance from AHDB’s Stocktake report, the group cal-culated carbon savings from alternative management changes that could be made between each modelled system scenario using Alltech E-CO2’s life cycle analysis model.
“A life cycle analysis approach gives us the true picture of a farm’s environmental footprint by considering the balance of emissions across the entire production system. This is done by examining all inputs, processes and outputs of a system – from obtaining raw materials to products leaving the farm gate,” explains Dr Stephen Ross, Senior Sustainability Specialist for Alltech E-CO2.
Modelling each farm as a 100 cow suckler herd to finishing system on a predominately forage diet, inputs such as synthetic fertiliser and manure application, straw, farm fuel and feed were kept constant as the life cycle model calculated the emission outputs between different management changes. These changes included such things as leaving bulls intact for finishing, reducing cow size, calving heifers at two and improving feed efficiency.
“What we found is that significant carbon savings were easily and quickly achievable by improving many things incrementally rather than one thing 100 per cent,” says Dr Ross. “This is because when one small component is made more efficient, that efficiency will resonate in the supply chain and enable reductions across the entire life cycle.”
For example, offspring produced with feed efficient genetics yielded a carbon saving of seven per cent, which was driven by animals requiring less feed to maintain the same level of growth as animals that weren’t as feed efficient.
When genetics for improved growth reduced the finishing time for steers from 23 months to 18 months, there was a carbon saving of 10 per cent. When those same genetics were applied to bulls, the finishing time decreased to 13 months with a carbon saving of 16 per cent.
“That six per cent carbon saving from leaving bulls intact shows there are huge opportunities for any producer to reduce their carbon footprint by making simple management decisions to improve efficiency, regardless of what they do with their genetic programme,” explains Mr Wareing. “Management changes like calving at two and improving the replacement rate allow for short and quick gain that can have a long-lasting impact on the industry.”
However, if producers want to fully optimise their systems for carbon and financial savings, they must incorporate genetic improvement with management changes at the same time as part of a combined suckler herd improvement strategy.
When combining improvements seen across the 12 modelled systems, a full steer finishing system had a carbon saving of 31 per cent and the bull finishing system had a carbon saving of 40 per cent.
“The full system, which includes improved fertility, growth rate and feed efficiency, reducing cow size, calving at two, all forage-fed cows – all of these management and genetic factors when taken together encompass what the Stabiliser breed offers the UK suckler industry,” says Mr Wareing. “The tools and knowledge to make radical long-term reductions to the carbon footprint are already available whilst also enhancing the opportunity for profit.”