Working to achieve net zero livestock farming

17 January 2022

James Drummond in amongst his herd of cattle

Meet Northumberland livestock farmer, James Drummond, who is on a mission to produce fantastic 100% forage-fed meat, while also driving down his greenhouse gas emissions, turbo-charging his carbon storage and achieving greater biodiversity than ever.

James and his family are tenant farmers in North Northumberland and he describes himself as a 'pasture mad' sheep and beef farmer. His determination to put pasture at the heart of his farming business saw him named 'Sheep Innovator of the Year' in the 2021 British Farming Awards and it's an approach he says benefits his livestock, his farm, his soil and local wildlife, as well as dramatically reducing his diesel and tractor use.

Here's how it works:

Grazing management

James aims to keep his animals outside all year round, rearing them solely on grass. A key driver for this is reducing his carbon footprint by reducing his reliance on diesel to fuel his tractor.

"Quite a lot of diesel is used if your cattle are brought inside during the winter," he said. "You need to move straw around, spread it out in the shed and of course muck it out too.

"By keeping my cattle and sheep out all year round I avoid that diesel use - reducing my carbon footprint and also reducing my costs, so making my business more financially resilient."

Of course, managing his pasture to make sure there is enough for his animals to eat throughout the winter, as well as looking after his fields to prevent damage during the wetter months is crucial.

The solution - making the most of the grass grown in the summer months - is ingenious!

  1. Produce a good supply of silage (cut grass that is then preserved wrapped in plastic that is later recycled). The silage bales are then dotted around the fields where James knows his animals will be able to access them. The beauty of placing them where he needs them in the summer means he's travelling on the ground in ideal conditions when it's dry and the soil is far less affected by compaction.

  2. Identify fields for winter grazing and leave them to rest and grow from July onwards. This is called 'deferred grazing' and aims to provide a plentiful supply of fresh grass throughout the winter.

  3. Use easily moved fencing to graze the fields in strips, moving sheep and cattle onto fresh grass and silage every couple of days. This also helps protect the soil from grazing damage.

Using this system, James says the grass will easily last the livestock right through the winter and his sheep and cattle love it because they are constantly getting access to the best grass. Plus he is able to do all his livestock management on foot when the ground is at it's most vulnerable.  

James Drummond on farm 2021 with silage bales_82394

James' specialist subject on Mastermind would definitely be pasture management and enrichment. His goal all the time is to graze the grass at the optimum time, with short grazing periods followed by a long rest. At peak growing season he aims for 18 days' rest but in the winter this rises to 150 days. This helps the plants maximise their ability to store carbon - growing lush above ground and producing a strong, dense root structure to build organic matter in the soil and so boost soil health.

Increasing the diversity of plants in the pasture is also crucial, he says, not only providing better nutrition for his animals but also a boost for the farm's insect populations. 

Species-rich swards

Growing a rich diversity of plants within his pastureland (or swards) is another passion of James'. He was one of the first sheep farmers in the country to introduce plantain and he now grows 4 different kinds alongside:

  • Different chicories
  • Birdsfoot Trefoil
  • Burnop
  • Parsley
  • Yarrow
  • Various clovers
  • Plus specific grass species particularly suited to a multi-species approach

Around a third of the farm is now growing this diverse mix of plants, with James working to reseed his fields wherever possible to continue increasing their biodiversity.

James says the benefits of this approach are numerous.

"A rich diversity of plant life is great for the local insect population, which in turn benefits our farmland birds," he said. "Many of these plants also have huge root structures, meaning more organic matter deeper in the soil - so more carbon storage too.

"This approach also benefits our animals as the deep root systems more minerals in the soil, making the gazing more nutritious for our sheep and cattle."

 The grazing management carried out on the farm also ensures optimum plant longevity and performance. Overall, James' approach improves the quality of the pasture, the soil and helps make his farm more sustainable, allowing him to reduce his costs and boost animal health and welfare.

James Drummond on farm 2021 with multi species sward_82399 

Alongside grass and silage, James also uses vegetable crops - fodder beet, kale and swede - to add into the feed given to his sheep and young cattle. In a drive to further improve soil health, James aims to minimise soil disturbance by planting his crops straight into his unploughed fields. This has an additional benefit of making the soil more resilient when it is being grazed and less prone to damage during the wetter months. 

Tree planting

Alongside the work James does to manage his pastureland, he will also have planted 45,000 trees on the farm over a 7 year period. Many of these have been used to boost existing hedgerows on the farm, others have been used to create what will be more than 6 km of new hedges by the end of the year.

James says this, combined with 'light-touch' management of existing hedges, is a huge win for the environment as well as providing increasingly important shelter for his animals.

Older hedges have been coppiced and gaps filled with new planting. With new hedges, the aim has been to connect existing hedges and areas of woodland around the farm to provide valuable wildlife corridors, as well as splitting fields to help with grazing management. James has also broadened his farm boundaries to boost biosecurity and so help keep his animals healthy and as free from disease as possible.

"I want to see hedges on the farm grow and express themselves," he said. "I want them to increase in scale year in and year out! This will not only increase their potential for carbon storage but also provide some mitigation against more adverse weather affecting my animals - particularly young stock and at lambing time."

James Drummond on farm 2021 with new hedgerow 3_82389

The final piece in the jigsaw of James' approach to making his livestock farm as sustainable as possible is the genetic performance of his animals. As a result he captures a huge amount of data on every animal born and living on the farm - analysing everything from which ewes make the best mothers to the methane output of individual animals.

Animal genetics

The flock and herd development work that James does has the ultimate goal of achieving animals that are cost effective to rear, naturally achieve the necessary weights with less feed and produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

He is currently gathering data on 22 traits in the sheep flock for example, with new areas under development.

Given that the rams he sells - roughly 250 a year - will mate with tens of thousands of ewes a year, the impact of a good breeding programme can be considerable in helping the wider farming industry feed a growing number of people while minimising the impact on the environment. It can also help farm businesses become more financially resilient, with lower costs that make them less vulnerable to fluctuating market conditions.

Promoting local food

James is so passionate about the food he is producing, he is now investing in a new on-farm facility that will allow him to offer both prime meat cuts and ready meal options direct to the public.

This is a huge challenge for him and means a steep learning curve, but he says the birth of his daughter and the natural desire to cook healthily for her has spurred him on to develop this new enterprise.

"Achieving our net zero aspirations as a country will mean using more local and seasonal British food," he said. "This is a really exciting project that will allow us to play a fuller part in offering people access to the food we are so proud to produce as well as much more information about exactly how it has been produced.

"British livestock farmers have such a fantastic story to tell, I'm determined to do my bit to showcase just why we pride ourselves on being leaders in climate friendly food production." 


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