Can pasture-fed livestock farming practices improve the ecological condition of grasslands?

Innovative farmers are adopting agro-ecological approaches to producing beef which they believe are better for biodiversity and soils. Lisa Norton (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and colleagues investigated the validity of these claims by comparing their grassland to those across the wider countryside surveyed as part of the national GB Countryside Survey. 

Public concerns about the environmental impacts of meat production add to the multiple pressures already facing the livestock sector, including low income levels and a drive for large-scale tree planting on grassland. Grasslands form the dominant land cover in the UK and are integral to supporting our rural economy, but they may also be key to increasing biodiversity and maintaining and improving soil quality in the wider countryside.

In our recent study, we explored whether innovative grassland management could benefit UK farmland.

Wildflowers_close up
PFLA pasture © Markus Wagner

Improving the ecological health of grassland swards often means taking less action; moving away from ploughing and sowing ryegrass dominated mixtures and towards encouraging more permanent species-rich swards.

Typically, maintenance of ryegrass in agriculturally improved grasslands is dependent on high levels of artificial fertilisers which are linked with loss of biodiversity, increased greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), land degradation, and long-term degradation of rivers and seas from nutrient runoff.

The Pasture-Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) is working to address these issues through promoting species-rich fields with increased levels of herbs and other native species and lower inputs. The primary aim of the PFLA is to feed a natural diet of 100% pasture with no supplementary grains or artificial feedstock.

Achieving this goal can be tricky, particularly during the winter months when grass growth is low and fields are vulnerable to poaching. As a result, PFLA farmers are adopting innovative grazing regimes, with many focusing on more regenerative practices, including adaptive multi-paddock grazing, long rest periods and deferred grazing.

Wildflowers
PFLA pasture © Markus Wagner

Our study found that PFLA swards were not only taller than comparable conventionally managed fields but also botanically more diverse, containing a greater proportion of native plants and herbs such as nitrogen-fixing legumes.

Wider implications

Increasing structural and botanical diversity can benefit other species including insect pollinators, insectivorous birds and small mammals. Higher botanical and structural diversity can also provide resilience to environmental stresses, such as drought and flooding. Additionally, lower external inputs ensure livestock farms are more resilient to price changes in the fertiliser/additive markets.

If accompanied by certification (e.g. organic or Pasture For Life) the resultant produce can be marketed at a higher level. Future results of our study will explore these wider social and economic benefits for the PFLA approaches.

Cows
PFLA pasture © Markus Wagner

Our work on grassland swards and soils shows that grassland management practices, as advocated by the PFLA, are already improving the ecological condition of grasslands. Increasing uptake of these practices by the livestock sector across the UK will help towards restoring the biodiversity of agriculturally productive grassland ecosystems and will in the longer term improve carbon storage in grasslands.

Read the full article: “Can pasture-fed livestock farming practices improve the ecological condition of grassland in Great Britain?” in Issue 3:4 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

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