Climate friendly farming

Maggie and Dave Kelly's Hereford Cattle_69011

The issue of climate change has never been more topical, with the UK Government committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by at least 80% by 2050.

British farming has a role in tackling climate change and the NFU (National Farmers Union) - which represents 55,000 British farmers - recently outlined its aspiration for net zero agriculture by 2040.

British farming with its extensive, grass-based, grazing systems produces some of the most sustainable beef in the world. According to the Government’s Committee on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions from UK beef are about half the global average1

British farmers are very proud of their high standards of production and aim to farm in as climate friendly a way as possible with a view to achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions.

What are the environmental benefits to British livestock?

The UK climate is ideal for growing grass for animals to eat.

Around 65% of farmland in the UK is best-suited to growing grass rather than other crops2. If we did not graze livestock on it, we could not use it to produce food.

Grazing livestock on this land allows us to turn inedible grass into high quality, nutrient-rich beef and lamb. This land also provides a valuable habitat for many native wildlife species that need open grassland to forage, such as hedgehogs and lapwings.

87% of UK beef is produced using predominantly forage based diets3, with only a very small amount of soya in rearing diets. This means UK beef production is not a driver of deforestation in other parts of the world.

Cattle feed infographic_69617

Sheep also produce wool, which is worth £100 million to the British economy4. Wool offers a range of solutions to problems we currently face. It is 100% natural, a renewable fibre source as sheep produce a new fleece every year, and is biodegradable.

Livestock and the value of wool infographic_71229

What are farmers doing to produce renewable energy?

Renewable energy 10 million homes infographic_70610

Farmland has been used for both food and energy production for hundreds of years. Today, nearly 40% of farmers and growers are using the sun, wind, farm by-products and energy crops to produce electricity and heat for use on farm.

Two of the most used renewable technologies on British farms are solar PV panels for electricity and heat generation from biomass.

Solar power

John Charles-Jones Nottinghamshire_58433

Farmers have a long history of using the sun’s energy to grow and dry crops. The development of solar power technology (often referred to as photovoltaics or solar PV) means light energy can also be captured to produce an electric current.

PV panels or modules can work for a long time (up to 40-50 years) and require very little maintenance. Solar PV is regarded by many experts as one of the most environmentally-friendly renewable energy technologies.

Many farmers have installed solar panels on their buildings and land. There are three main ways solar panels can be installed:

  • PV panels mounted on top of existing roofs or integrated into new roofs and buildings
  • Ground-mounted panels in unplanted areas – for example around the edges of fields
  • Large arrays of panels across entire fields

Anaerobic digestion

Anaerobic Digestion at Joel Beckett's farm_59073

Anaerobic digestion (AD) is the controlled breakdown of organic material in a closed ‘digester’ vessel. Anaerobic means ‘without air’, as opposed to composting, which takes place in the presence of air.

After 20 to 60 days, depending on the configuration and internal temperature of the digester, a methane-rich ‘biogas’ is produced. This gas is used for electricity and heat generation, and may also be upgraded for other applications.

Another product of the AD process is an odour-free ‘digestate’ which can be spread on farmland as a fertiliser.

Material suitable for the AD process includes:

  • Animal manure and slurry
  • Energy crops such as maize or ryegrass silage and fodder beet
  • Food processing by-products
  • Food waste from retailers
  • Biodegradable household waste

Climate change jargon buster. What exactly is...

Biofuel - A fuel derived from renewable, biological sources, including crops such as maize and sugar cane, and some forms of waste.
Carbon footprint - The amount of carbon emitted by an individual or organisation in a given period of time, or the amount of carbon emitted during the manufacture of a product.
Climate change - A pattern of change affecting global or regional climate, as measured by yardsticks such as average temperature and rainfall, or an alteration in frequency of extreme weather conditions. This variation may be caused by both natural processes and human activity. Global warming is one aspect of climate change.
Deforestation - The permanent removal of standing forests that can lead to significant levels of carbon dioxide emissions.
Global warming - The gradual increase in global average temperature.
Greenhouse gas - A group of gases that, due to their chemistry, trap heat and warm up the Earth’s climate via the greenhouse effect.
Greenhouse gas emissions - Releasing any of these greenhouse gases into the air is known as greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes shortened to GHG emissions.
Greenhouse effect - The process where greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap some of the sun’s heat and stop it radiating back out to space, making the planet warmer than it would be otherwise. Like an insulating blanket around the planet.
Net zero carbon - Net zero carbon means that some carbon is emitted, but only an equal amount to what is absorbed, so the net effect is carbon neutral. A good example is burning wood for energy: it emits carbon, but only the same amount as the trees previously absorbed when they were alive.​
Soil carbon - The amount of carbon stored in the soil.

Where did we get our information?

  1. Land use: Policies for a net zero UK, Committee on Climate Change, January 2020
  2. Farming Statistics: Provisional crop areas, yields and livestock populations at June 2019 – United Kingdom, Defra/National Statistics, 2019
  3. Cattle Farm Practices Survey 2019, Defra
  4. Wool and the carbon cycle, International Wool Textile Organisation website

Related categories: Environment Livestock

Last edited: 01 June 2022 at 11:22

Have your say

Countryside website team - 14/02/2020 17:29:58

Hello, Countryside editors here. In response to Maureen's question, the average dairy herd size in the UK is only around 150, with cattle being even lower at only around 25. These businesses are still predominantly run by small family businesses. This time of year, especially with the wet weather we’re currently having, cattle are often housed just because it is too cold to keep them outside and the cattle are more comfortable being sheltered from it. British cows live off a grass-based diet and are grazing this grass for most of the year, or as long as the weather allows. The UK has some of the highest standards of animal welfare, which farmers are proud to adhere to, whether their cattle are out in the fields or being housed during the winter months.

Sarah - 06/02/2020 14:32:42

I am relieved to have found this article. There is too much media attention given to ruminants being one of the 3 biggest threats to the climate. This is being taken as scientific evidence that we should stop eating beef - a new disappointing story from Edinburgh University voting to ban red meat appeared today. We need to challenge this with positive messages about grass fed beef - and the science that supports our claims - how does grass fed beef compare with intense soya fed South American beef? What are the figures? What is the carbon cost of importing sufficient protein for vegan diets and the cost of manufacturing this protein. How does this compare? My view is our main message appears to be Back British Farming but we need to lead with scientific evidence. I can’t find the figures to use to show why British Grass fed beef is not contributing to climate change.

Anthony West - 26/01/2020 16:42:20

I agree with a lot of this article. I am concerned however that the government is heading for a no-deal Brexit which could mean food produced to lower standards being imported. If I am wrong in my assumption please let me know.

Maureen RichardsMBE - 20/01/2020 09:42:10

How Much Factory Farming do we still have in our country? and What is being done to stop this terrible way of farming ? We only have to drive around to see the decline in the fields full of animals to know it is still being used, and we live in Devon which does seem better than the further you drive up the country?

Jacky Harrison - 20/01/2020 09:10:56

Great article - need to feed it to the tabloids - with simple messages

Jillian Edwards - 20/01/2020 08:31:04

God help us if our PM allows US produced beef and poultry into the UK. It will be sold more cheaply, therefore being bought mainly by those on low incomes and do enormous damage to our livestock industr.

Mary Simpson - 19/01/2020 14:55:48

I am totally against the importation of meat products from the US. I feel that it will be detrimental to the health of UK residents. I feel all fresh US meat plus and and ALL pre prepared meat products should be clearly labelled - Contains US MEAT.

Jackie Harrop - 15/01/2020 23:15:26

Buy British eat meat

Join the conversation

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.