Sustainable farming is a circular, holistic system, and for thousands of farmers across the UK livestock is an integral part of that system. 

Not only does livestock play a key role in nurturing good soil health and fertility, but these farm animals also offer a unique ability to convert inedible plants into highly nutritious food.

Shimpling Park Farm in Suffolk is a mixed organic farm that has been in John Pawsey’s family for over four generations. But with the pressures of climate change, the farm has had to adapt in order to survive.

“We are now farming without the use of artificial fertilisers or pesticides, and so that’s changed our farming system completely, into something that is much more natural — building fertility naturally within the soils,” explains John, an organic sheep and arable farmer and member of the National Sheep Association. “We’ve had to learn fast to work out how to do that.”

 

As well as eradicating the use of chemical sprays, another big factor in making the farm more sustainable is livestock. Sheep play a huge role in the farm’s sustainability.

“The grass and clover lays are building fertility in the soil, the sheep are eating that and therefore dunging on the fields, and creating a natural fertiliser. The sheep are also grazing areas of our farm to keep weeds down so we don’t have to use herbicides. So they’re bringing an incredible amount to our rotation.”

Environment consultant for the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) Professor John Gilliland OBE agrees, livestock play a central role in enhancing the soil’s health.

Sheep farming
Sheep on John’s Shimpling farm play a central role in nourishing the soil.

“Livestock do two things; one, they can turn inedible, plant-based food into very edible food for humans,” he says. “Secondly, when they defecate, that bacteria breaks down that herbage, feeds the animal, but also produces methane. This is full of both bacteria and fungi. When that hits the ground, it inoculates the soil.”

“Most people forget that 60% of the world’s biodiversity is not in the air, it’s not in the trees; it’s under the soil. And soil biology is inoculated by animals eating and defecating. So our agriculture is very circular.” If one part of that circle is removed, he explains, you lose the circularity of agriculture.

Professor John Gilliland OBE
Professor John Gilliland OBE, AHDB

“Cattle, sheep, dairy cows, are absolutely important to the biology of the food chain — from the animal, down into the soil, into the plant, and back up into the animal again.”

When it comes to feeding John’s flock of sheep, he has a crop called ‘lucerne’ — a legume that has big, long roots that go deep into the soil, looking for water and nutrients.

“The reason we’ve been interested in lucerne is because of that root depth,” John explains. “Because of climate change, we’re getting much drier springs, so we need crops that have the ability to really search for moisture.”

The lucerne crop
The lucerne crop has extra long roots that are able to find moisture deeper within the soil.

The strong connection between crops and livestock wouldn’t be possible without the use of modern technology. As John points out, farming organically doesn’t mean farming in an old-fashioned way. His farm uses modern technology guided by a satellite, and also has a camera on it, which means it can weed in between the rows of crops that it’s sown. It’s a modern, organic way of farming.

Shimpling Farm is a modern example of where livestock and crops are grown in synergy. But how is the sector working towards reducing the industry’s carbon footprint?

As John Gilliland explains, it is about empowering farmers with “better quality knowledge, so they make better quality decisions”. This, he believes, ultimately helps them make more money while also reducing their environmental footprint — not just in terms of carbon, but also water quality and biodiversity.

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