How to run a successful and climate-friendly livestock farm
If more farms adopt ‘agroecology’ – farming processes that work in synergy with the environment – it could spell huge benefits for our climate, nature and health.
However, in the UK, this transition would only be effective if we also reduced food waste and changed our diets – in particular, addressing our over-consumption of intensively-farmed meat and dairy. Though media headlines claim that meat and dairy itself causes environmental destruction, it’s actually the intensive systems behind their large-scale production that shoulders much of the blame. Alternatively, grazing farm animals on independent, organic and/or agroecological farms can actually help the climate by, for example, locking more carbon into the soil. The way in which livestock is farmed, then, has a huge impact on the way in which farm animals effect the environment.
Demonstrating climate-friendly livestock farming in practice is farmer Gill Vollum: the owner of Balliemore Farm and a Soil Association Farmer Ambassador. She has been working with cattle in a nature-friendly way for over ten years, and has a lot of wisdom when it comes to managing her animals in a way that supports the climate. Here are just a few of her top tips…
A history of championing agroecology
Balliemore Farm has been in my family for decades… as has agroecology. My dad started farming in 1984 and followed nature-friendly principles from the start. For him, it was a case of farming in the way he knew best: and the way he knew best just so happened to be working with nature wherever possible.
Since my husband and I took over the property in 2010, we’ve made sure to honour how my dad ran things and to keep the eco-friendly spirit of Balliemore Farm alive. For us, this decision has come from both necessity and choice. In some ways, it’s hard for us not to farm with the environment, as we’re based in Kerrera. As a small and remote hill farm, we can’t get fertilisers (even if we wanted to use them!), so have had to be more innovative with our farming methods due to a lack of alternative resources. However, a bigger part of our choice to use agroecology is in understanding the benefits it has for the planet, and the success we’ve seen following its principles on our land.
I truly believe that every farmer could make changes, whether large or small, to work more closely with nature in a way that benefits both parties – so with that in mind, here are some of the steps I’d recommend following if you wish to lessen your livestock farm’s climate ‘hoofprint’…
Tip 1: Plant, sow, and grow!
Our cows spend very little time indoors because we want them to benefit from a natural and free lifestyle: but we’ve had to do some planting to make our farmland suitable for this. For those who don’t know, Kerrera is a steep and rugged island, and though our cows are adept at manoeuvring across its rocky terrain, we’ve taken extra steps to make sure that they can forage and find shelter while outside, too… largely through planting trees.
My dad was a huge advocate of farming with trees: a process called agroforestry. In fact, he loved them so much that he even made it a Christmas Day tradition for us to plant trees across the farm! He really was onto something though, for despite Balliemore Farm’s challenging landscape, we experience a lot of biodiversity. This is thanks to the wildflowers, trees, and shrubs that we’ve been growing here for years, which include native Scottish trees as well as bee-friendly and ‘sheltering’ plants.
Choosing the right things to grow will largely depend on where your farm is based, and the particular environment you have to work with – but in my view, trees are always a win, and are where you should start. Some of the species we’ve planted include:
- Sycamore and willow trees: because they produce flowers and pollen (great for insects!)
- Chestnut trees: because they’re a super source of food for our livestock and other wildlife
- Oak trees: because they provide shelter for our cows while they’re out on the pasture.
Tip 2: Choose your livestock breed(s) carefully
We work with Dexter cows at Balliemore Farm. They’re a small, hardy breed that are very light and nimble on their feet, making them ideally suited to the bumpy terrain and harsh weather we get up here on the west coast of Scotland. They also need minimal feeding throughout the winter, as well, and are adept at finding forage to thrive on. They’re quite the super cow!
All of which is to say: when choosing livestock to farm with, don’t choose species or breeds that will demand a lot of resources (which could increase your farm’s overall emissions) or extra attention. Choose livestock that will ‘click’ with your environment, instead. The climate around you, type of terrain you work with and the resources you have to hand should all factor into your decision.
Of course, you’ll also need to bear in mind the needs of your farm, too, and make any changes to the animals you work with accordingly. For example: one setback of the Dexter breed is that they’re quite small, so we crossed them with an Aberdeen Angus to create a bigger cow. Doing this meant that we still had cows that could thrive in the Kerrera landscape but were also a little more profitable for us. It was a win-win.
Tip 3: Always think local
Another way in which we try to keep our emissions to a minimum at Balliemore Farm is by keeping our processes as local as possible. This starts from the moment our cows head to the abattoir, which is based on our neighbouring island, Mull. Their total travel time is about an hour to an hour and a half, and is generally a very smooth and stress-free journey.
When our beef returns, we then sell it locally in a couple of ways. Firstly, we stock it at our on-site farm shop, which we’ve raised awareness about using social media. Social media has been a huge part of our local sales success and is something that other farmers shouldn’t overlook, because if you’re able to resonate with people online, they’re much likely to support you offline. Therefore, I try to post to our Instagram account at least once a day, and am really transparent with how we farm and what our day-to-day looks like. Our followers seem to appreciate the transparency, as doing this has definitely helped our business.
Secondly, we use an online farmer's market called The Great British Food Hub. This market is paired with local food hubs across the UK. These have designated opening times, so customers simply buy from your farm through the website throughout the week, and then show up to the local food hub when it’s open to pick up the produce. That way, all you have to do is process any orders that are made through the website, and then drop them off at your local food hub when it’s time for your week’s buyers to pick up their orders. It’s a really simple but effective way to sell locally!
Ultimately, agroecology is possible for every farmer
We all have a role to play in making eco-friendly choices. Whether that’s choosing what you plant in your garden, buying organically certified products or farming in a more nature-friendly way, everything we do contributes to a healthier, happier planet.
Further, I truly believe that every farmer can adopt more climate-conscious practices on their land. While a farm-wide transition to agroecology might be intimidating (and difficult to achieve) for some farms, we can all adapt at least one or two of our processes to be ‘greener’. Even the littlest efforts will help to make a difference.
I also think it’s vital that we prepare the next generation as much as possible to live more environmentally. Good food education is so important, and at Balliemore Farm, we’re hoping to host school visits to get children to visit our land, so that they can understand what agroecology is about and see how it works in action. The more we educate, the more ‘naturally’ nature-friendly living will come to us all!