Guest blog by James Clarke, Head of Communications and Public Engagement, Rothamsted Research
Of all the villains in the current media framing of climate change, the humble cow is perhaps one of the most hapless. She doesn’t pollute the air by driving a gas-guzzling SUV or taking fancy foreign holidays, but unfortunately for Planet Earth she is prone to burping – and that is a big problem.
Cows are ruminants. They are only able to digest grass by fermenting it in their complex stomachs. It is a highly effective way of converting pasture into protein, but the process involves bacteria that produce methane as a side product. Once burped, this greenhouse gas is far more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide – by some estimates as much as 28 times more damaging.
But not all farming systems are the same. Cattle reared on intensive feedlots have a very different carbon footprint to pasture-raised Cornish cows. And by better understanding the complex of inputs and outputs on a livestock farm we may be able to reduce that impact even further, delivering beef, lamb and dairy in a far more climate friendly fashion.
That is the task of North Wyke – a fully working “farm lab” run by Rothamsted Research that aims to transform livestock farming across the Southwest. Everything on the site is measured, from the plants the animals eat, to how they graze (tracked using a cow “fitbit”) and what comes out the other end. Match this with soil analysis and water data and an astonishingly complete picture of the entire farm system emerges.
The research team are even attempting to compare the climate impact of vegan and omnivorous diets using a ‘Meat vs Wheat’ experiment. A patch of pasture has been converted to arable production to directly compare the nutritional and environmental benefits and impacts of producing either meat or wheat on the same area of land. They hope to publish some of these results later this year.
Rothamsted is a research partner in the Agritech Cornwall Programme and with its other stakeholders, works on several research projects that will help farmers in the county deliver a low carbon future.
Studies include analysis of the environmental impacts of different grazing systems and investigating the myriad of ecosystem services provided by pastures made up of a diverse mix of plants.
The results of this research are delivered in increasingly innovative ways. The phone-based Crap App for instance, provides information to optimise manure use, boosting pasture growth without damaging sensitive natural systems.
Perhaps most striking is research revealing the potential for pasture to become a carbon sink. Soils rich in organic matter can store significant amounts of carbon. The Soil Carbon project is attempting to uncover what is happening underneath Cornish farms and develop practical solutions to valuing this hidden asset.
Find out more:
Follow us @rothamsted