Suckler Beef Climate Scheme: final report

Final report from the Suckler Beef Climate Group on development and delivery recommendations for sustainable suckler beef production in Scotland.

1. Executive summary

Climate change has become a key priority for governments across the world and will require real action and commitment if we are to slow global warming. Recognising the urgency of the situation, Scotland has responded with ambitious targets, aiming to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 75% by 2030 and become a net-zero nation by 2045. In order to ensure that these targets can be met, every sector including the farming industry will be required to implement effective and high impact measures to drive down total greenhouse gas emissions and protect already existing carbon stores within our environment.

A recent study conducted by S. Thomson and A. Moxey (2020)[9] shows that the Scottish suckler beef sector has the potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions registered in the National Inventory by up to between 24% and 39%, and emissions abatement modelling carried out by J. Bell et al. (2020)[10] suggests that the adoption of 10 different on-farm measures can lower greenhouse gas emissions per unit of output by almost 38%. These studies draw on vast datasets using the most recent and up-to-date suckler beef data from the Cattle Tracing System, and together represent the most in-depth and robust analysis that has ever been carried out to assess and evaluate suckler beef cattle performance and emissions specifically relevant to Scotland. Their findings are consistent with other similar studies that were carried out independently of this report and which came to similar conclusions, namely that Scotland's farmers can indeed reduce emissions by at least 35% without the need to compromise current production levels. [11] [12]

Suckler beef systems are responsible for more than a third of Scottish agricultural emissions (S. Thomson and A. Moxey, 2020). Approx. 75% of these emissions come from methane produced during rumination (enteric fermentation), with a further 12% being generated during anaerobic decomposition within manure. Nitrous oxide accounts for an additional 14% of total suckler beef emissions and is associated with nutrient management. Carbon dioxide is typically a much less significant greenhouse gas in suckler beef systems, and its proportional contribution towards total enterprise emissions depends largely on the use of farm machinery.

In order to effectively reduce greenhouse gas emissions from suckler beef systems, mitigation actions should focus those areas causing the largest emissions. This includes enteric fermentation and manure management, along with soil and nutrient management, and the greatest gains can be made by focusing on breeding females. Within the Scottish suckler beef herd, breeding cows and heifers contribute more than half of the total emissions associated with the beef sector, and any efficiency gains targeting breeding females will therefore have the biggest impact and greatly reduce emissions from the suckler beef industry.

There are already countless studies available to highlight the potential to reduce emissions from the cattle system, and some of these have been captured within this report.

For example, increasing the feed conversion efficiency of finishing cattle through targeted genetic selection can reduce methane emissions by 15% and lower feed inputs by up to 13%.

Improving breeding herd management by increasing the number of calves reared, reducing the mature cow size, and lowering the number of unproductive replacement heifers on the farm by calving down at 2 years old could reduce the emissions intensity of an average rearer finisher unit by almost 10%. Increasing cow longevity on farms where a younger age at calving is not feasible can potentially generate equally significant benefits by reducing the replacement rate. Building on the aforementioned gains by complementing such an improved breeding programme with better targeted feed rationing can greatly enhance the finishing performance and potentially allow for quicker finishing. Reducing the age at slaughter by 3 months for instance could therefore increase total emissions savings to more than 20%.

Improving cattle health through the control and, where possible, eradication of diseases such as BVD, IBR or Johne's could reduce emissions by more than 50%, and better liver fluke control can enhance cattle performance and reduce the associated emissions intensity by almost 10%.

Covering slurry stores and replacing broadcast slurry spreading equipment with low emission precision application attachments can lower emissions by 78% and 60% respectively.

And although not currently included within the Smart Inventory, methane inhibitors are showing very promising results, and studies have found that the inclusion of inhibitors such as 3NOP could reduce enteric methane production by 20%. Methane inhibitors are still in the very early stages of commercial use, but if the data collected in the UK and around the world continues to show its benefits, this could make a real impact within the suckler beef and wider cattle industry. This in itself could offer emissions savings that go beyond the current targets.

The above are just a few of the many examples that highlight the huge potential to effectively and efficiently reduce greenhouse gas emissions on Scottish suckler beef farms.

In order to achieve meaningful net emissions within the agricultural sector and capture the many opportunities to adopt effective mitigation measures at farm level, the Scottish Government set up the Suckler Beef Climate Group for the purpose of considering and proposing alternative mechanisms of support for the Scottish suckler beef sector to encourage widespread uptake of mitigation actions amongst farmers and achieve real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

In an attempt to ensure that real outcomes and targets can and will be achieved, the proposed Suckler Beef Climate Scheme (the "SBCS") will be an outcome-based and outcome-driven support mechanism aimed at reducing net greenhouse gas emissions from Scottish suckler beef herds by encouraging the uptake of new management practices and/or changes to existing ones. This includes the provision of part-funding towards appropriate capital items and training as part of the scheme and, where possible, further aims to ensure that the adopted measures can help to mitigate other environmental impacts, particularly through a focus on soil health and nutrient and grassland management.

The scheme aims will be achieved by focusing on the following two key outcomes:

  • To reduce the emissions intensity[13] of suckler beef systems by improving on-farm production and greenhouse gas efficiencies through better input and resource utilisation
  • To maintain and, where possible, enhance soil carbon storage, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from farmland through better soil and grassland management on suckler beef farming units

Participating businesses will be able to choose from a suite of management options covering production efficiency improvements via cattle breeding, cattle monitoring and performance recording, cattle feeding and cattle health. Further management options will be available to protect and increase soil health, enhance grazing and grassland management, and improve nutrient management. These management options build on scientific research and case studies, and incorporate best practice that has shown to deliver real outcomes.

The scheme is designed to be inclusive to recognise that there is scope within every business to improve its efficiency, profitability and resilience whilst reducing net greenhouse gas emissions. The scheme will therefore be open to all types of suckler beef producers, regardless of farm type, security of tenure, production system, herd size, or the level of commitment as part of the scheme, so long as they fulfil certain minimum scheme requirements. The scheme represents a much more hands-on, farmer-led scientific approach using BAT (Best Available Technology) on Scotland's suckler beef farms.

In addition to the various management options that will be available for applicants to choose from, the group has identified several key criteria that should form the baseline minimum requirements of the scheme and be carried out by all participating businesses to ensure a common starting point and basis throughout the scheme. Many farming businesses already carry out some or all of these stipulations, and the scheme seeks to encourage suckler beef farmers across Scotland to adopt best practice and make it common practice within their systems.

These requirements include

  • completing a farm business carbon audit
  • outlining a nutrient management plan
  • carrying out soil, forage and manure analysis
  • outlining a feed ration plan
  • completing a breeding and marketing plan
  • Continuous Professional Development including an annual meeting with a competent farm business adviser to assess business progress
  • data sharing and beef sector collaboration
  • identifying and committing to management aimed at enhancing biodiversity
  • maintaining appropriate QMS Cattle Assurance Scheme accreditation

Participants will find that these minimum requirements already offer useful tools to start the process of making the cattle production system and general business management more efficient. They provide the baseline for industry best practice, and will ultimately play a crucial part in enabling businesses to make the same efficiency gains as summarised further above.

One stipulation in particular that is worth noting is the requirement to identify and commit to on-farm management aimed at biodiversity enhancement. Although the core aim of the scheme represents climate change mitigation, Scottish Government has also committed to contributing towards biodiversity targets as part of its ongoing Scottish biodiversity strategy, and aims to deliver on environmental outcomes by supporting agricultural businesses in taking steps to preserve and enhance local ecosystems and native habitats for key plant and animal species. Biodiversity enhancement will therefore form a secondary aim of the SBCS, and work is currently underway to develop the above minimum requirement into a meaningful on-farm strategy to assist farming businesses in delivering on this target.

The scheme deliberately concentrates on sector-specific initiatives to improve the production efficiencies of Scotland's suckler beef herds and reduce their impact on climate change. It has therefore not reviewed options for offsetting sequestration land use changes nor assessed any impacts from land use changes and/or other carbon sequestration ideas and measures, as this has never been part of the group's remit. That being said, these measures will play a vital role in Scottish agriculture meeting its climate change targets. There are many options available to farmers and land managers that can help to mitigate climate change, including the use of small-scale renewables and hydrogen as an alternative fuel for farm machinery, peatland restoration and protection alongside habitat preservation, and farm woodlands including agroforestry, hedging and silvopasture amongst many others.

Further options that are to date showing promising results and the potential to greatly enhance production efficiencies and with that help to reduce on-farm emissions were considered by the group but not included due to not yet being commercially available, or because further research will be required to quantify their exact impact on farm efficiencies and their ability to contribute towards mitigating global warming. Such research will be particularly beneficial and relevant by considering their benefits within a Scottish or British setting. Such options include, amongst many others, targeted selective treatment (TST) of livestock for the control of internal parasites and the setting up of national soil carbon and antibiotic usage databases.

Ultimately, the potential to reduce overall emissions associated with Scottish suckler beef production will depend on the widespread uptake of relevant mitigation actions amongst farmers, and will have to rely on a supportive and engaging policy and market environment. By doing things smarter and better, there is a huge opportunity for Scotland's suckler beef farmers to improve their production efficiencies for the benefit of the climate, the environment and their own future viability.

As every year goes by, more and more initiatives, innovations, research findings and entrepreneurial ideas emerge on how to combat climate change. By actively engaging with the latest research available, this scheme will address areas of production where the biggest issues are, and where the biggest gains can be made. Many measures are already in place and adopted on-farm, and their inclusion within this scheme alongside further best practice will enable suckler beef farmers and the wider Scottish agricultural industry to hit the targets that are being talked about. The data shows that this is possible, and with the knowledge and initiatives already available, real results are achievable.

The coming months will be used to further develop details of the proposed scheme and design a robust concept of application, implementation and monitoring. This includes further outlining the data evaluation and opportunity scoring aspects. A detailed proposal on the budgetary and cost implications of the scheme to government and individual businesses is being worked on and will be presented to government.



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