Farmers with pasture-fed livestock systems are increasingly adopting agro-ecological approaches to deliver profits for their business as well as potential environmental benefits. But what is the evidence for the effectiveness of these approaches? Dr Lisa Norton, an agro-ecologist at the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, and colleagues worked with farmers to assess such approaches using a range of scientific methods including the collection of environmental, economic and social data.

Lisa explains more about new results published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems

There has been a lot of discussion in the media about the negative impacts of livestock farming. Some farmers claim that they are now working with natural processes, resulting in minimal losses of greenhouse gases and positive impacts on biodiversity and wider public goods such as sustainable soil management and nutrient use. But is this true?

We used a novel approach involving social, economic and ecological scientists, working on commercial farms with the Pasture Fed Livestock Association (PFLA) and farmers to evidence their claims.

The PFLA champions the role of grazing animals for pasture management and is working to address GHG emissions and biodiversity loss through promoting species-rich fields, lowered inputs and adaptive grazing strategies. The primary aim of the PFLA is to feed a natural diet of 100 per cent pasture, with no supplementary grains or artificial feedstock. The PFLA takes a food systems approach, considering supply chains and product certification as well as supporting knowledge exchange among farmers.

We surveyed more than 50 farms across Britain, undertaking soil and vegetation sampling, assessing public goods provision through farm practice interviews and carrying out qualitative farmer interviews.

Despite considerable variability between farms, we found that the PFLA approach to livestock production contributes to wider delivery of environment benefits and public goods, including increasing plant species and structural vegetation diversity, maintaining soil carbon and the inclusion of agri-environment options. We found that farmers that had been PFLA practitioners for longer tended to be better at this public good delivery.

Importantly we also showed that the delivery of public goods did not come at the cost of farm viability; PFLA farms often out-performed their conventional equivalents from an economic perspective.

The research also provided crucial insights into the importance of the social aspects of these innovative low-input, biodiversity-positive farming practices. We found that individual farmers were motivated to share their experiences with and learn from other farmers and adapt their practices accordingly. This social aspect was also very important for their wellbeing.

Aligned work on two of the farms in the study additionally showed that positive benefits may also extend to aspects of meat quality from these systems.

We highlight the importance of knowing where our food comes from in terms of how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it may be for the planet. More work is required to understand the detailed carbon budgets associated with pasture fed systems like these where farmers don’t use livestock feed and are focused on both environmental wellbeing and production.

Our research does suggest however that long-term engagement with like-minded groups and practitioners promoting such methods fosters peer-to-peer learning and innovation, encouraging farmers with steps to make a viable living as well as provide environmental benefits. This could be fundamental to learning how to bring about the necessary shifts in livestock systems that will help create resilient and sustainable outcomes for agriculture.

Dr Lisa Norton

Related links

Full paper: Learning from innovative practitioners: Evidence for the sustainability and resilience of pasture fed livestock systems, Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems, DOI: 10.3389/fsufs.2022.1012691

The SEEGSLIP project sought to evidence the practices of a particular group of farmers who are using pasture fed farming systems.

Watch: Our video explains the SEEGSLIP project, the pasture-fed concept and some of our research findings.