16th December 2020

Regenerating to Rebuild the Scottish Beef Sector

By John Evans, QMS Cattle and Sheep Specialist

I am writing this after watching an inspiring Groundswell webinar viewed by over 800 people and featuring some of the leaders from the world of regenerative agriculture.  I find the principle refreshingly simple – by taking care of the soil, food production will once again flourish.  The usual question was asked: can regenerative agriculture feed the world?

This got me thinking, can it regenerate Scottish suckler beef farming from the ground up? If you believe all the claims, then it certainly looks possible.  As a well-respected agricultural consultant mentioned to me recently, Scottish suckler beef production really hasn’t progressed over the past 20 years. If you consider cow numbers have reduced by 20% over that time, then he’s probably right. 

Over the same period, policy and advice has driven farmers towards specialisation to gain economies of scale and production efficiencies.  Has it resulted in farming in Scotland becoming too specialist and intensive?  Whether that translates into keeping too many finishing cattle in the uplands and buying in winter feed to sustain them, or growing continuous cereal cash crops in the valley bottoms using only artificial inputs, mining the soil of its organic matter.

The challenges which lie ahead are monumental. Policy and support are changing; sustainability, environmental and climate obligations can no longer be ignored; whilst at the same time we are facing the post-Brexit world of international trade.  I think it’s fair to say the status quo cannot continue.

Livestock farmers need to find a way of producing greener, more consistent and nutrient-dense meat. This would really highlight the Scotch difference and I believe part of the solution lies under our feet. 

Regenerative agriculture is a form of conservation agriculture which optimises production, aiming to restore soil health and fertility which in turn results in more nutritious crops, healthier livestock and better nourished consumers.  All this with fewer chemical inputs, higher biodiversity and increased levels of carbon stored in the soil. Amongst the fundamental principles are limited mechanical disturbance of the soil, diverse crop rotations and maintaining living plant roots throughout the year to facilitate nutrient cycling. Livestock are at the heart of the system, grazing the diverse crops and completing the loop by returning manure to the land.

On the basis that over 80% of Scotland’s agricultural land is pasture then farming regeneratively should be possible for most livestock farms with only a few changes to farming practices.  For example, including multi-species herbal leys in the grassland rotation and carrying out alternative grazing management.  For the remainder of Scotland’s agricultural land and arable farmers the challenge is greater. However, there is undoubtably more to gain and there are still some easy wins, such as widening rotations and including diverse multi-species cover cropping.  The natural next step is no-till establishment.

The greatest value is seen when these two systems come together and livestock is moved down the hill to arable land to graze these cover crops, offering a high quality forage diet for the livestock to thrive on, putting meat on their backs and fertility back into the soil.  Livestock now becomes an asset, to both arable and livestock farmers. 

It is time we reengage with how our ancestors managed the land with genuine rotations, mixed farming and biodiversity.  The industry is awash with supposedly new schemes and strategies, but it is frustratingly just more of the same.  If this is the best that our industry can come up with, do we not owe it to the next generation to be more radical? 

And the answer to the original question is a yes, regenerative agriculture really can feed the world!


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