Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Factory Farming

I have a question for cattle farmers: What do you sell?

The chances are, your immediate answer would be something along the lines of "Store cattle!" or "Beef!" or "Fat cattle!"

Wrong. Try again.....

Hmmm, how about "Grass?"

Getting closer.....

Give up? The answer is sunlight! You are capturing light energy and converting it into a saleable form. It is as simple as that. You are virtually unique in this (maybe solar or hydro-electricity are almost there, though they always require some manufactured products before they can function).

Think about this for a minute. Sunlight is streaming down to earth. Every day, light radiation hits our farms. The more of this we can capture and convert into meat (or milk, or eggs or grains of wheat), and the less it costs us to capture it, the richer we become. It's a beautiful thought.

So how do we capture it efficiently? The answer lies in factory farming. In particular I am talking, in the case of a cattle farmer, about three separate but linked factories.

The first factory is the grass plant. This miracle of natural engineering has the ability to intercept the light shining down on to us. The more leaf area you have, up to a limit, the more sunlight gets converted into chemical energy. Chemical energy can be stored, used, sold. That is money!

The second factory is the soil. Grass needs nutrients from the soil. A living soil will be rich in all the nutrients needed by the plant. But, just like us, the living soil needs energy to stay alive. Where does that energy come from? Where else but the sun. We need to take some of the chemical energy now stored in the grass plants and give it to the living soil - the microorganisms, arthropods, nematodes, miccorhyzal fungae etc. So a significant part of the grass plant needs to be fed to the soil to keep it alive and healthy.

The third factory is the ruminant animal. The correct type of grazing animal has the ability to consume the grass and extract the energy from the grass, along with all the other nutrients that the grass plant extracted from the living soil. She will also, with her trampling, dung and urine, feed the living soil. This is a key point, part of the jigsaw puzzle that has been missing from many farms since the perfection of the haber-bosch process gave us artificial nitrogen.

I said earlier that the less it costs us to capture it, the richer we become. Let us imagine a perfect world for a minute and lets say we already own a large area of pasture and a herd of cows and a bull. The pasture intercepts all the sunlight that falls on that patch of earth and converts it into carbohydrate energy. Cost to the farmer? Nil.

We put the cows into the field. The cows graze some of the grass, trample the remainder to feed the soil and convert the energy they consume from the forage into growing calves. Cost to the farmer? Nil.

All of the heifer calves are kept to expand the herd, living off the stored energy and nutrients of the grass. Cost to the farmer? Nil. The remainder of the calves are fattened off the grass and are walked to the local abattoir (remember we're still in an imaginary perfect world without EU diktats etc!). The abattoir kills, butchers and sells them through its own shop to local people who walk from their homes to collect their meat. Total cost to the farmer? Nil

How much fossil fuel was consumed in this perfect-world farm? The answer is nil. I believe that livestock farming has the potential to be the only truly sustainable industry in the world. The energy source is free. The factories replenish themselves indefinitely at no cost to you and the end product is saleable for hard cash.

Now, real farmers will be throwing their hands up in horror at this stage. It's all very well in an imaginary world, they will say, but in the real world we have winter so we have to make straw to bed the cattle which uses fossil fuel. We also need to make silage, which uses fossil fuel. We then have to physically bed the cattle during the winter, which uses fossil fuel. We also have to feed them during the winter, which uses fossil fuel. We then have to muck them out, which uses fossil fuel. We have to spread the muck, which uses fossil fuel. Oh, and we have to build the sheds, which uses fossil fuel. And fossil fuel costs money, as does the labour needed to burn all this fossil fuel.


I am fortunate enough to have travelled to far-off places during my Nuffield studies. I have seen cattle ranchers in Missouri with 50"+ of rain and hard, cold winters who keep cattle outside all year round and don't own a shed or a tractor. They are a lot closer to the 'ideal world' than we in the UK are, and they are laughing at us.

I have seen cattle ranchers in Argentina, with 32"+ of rain a year and a temperate climate with intermittent winter frosts who keep cattle outside all year round. Despite the cover crops direct drilled for winter grazing, they too are a lot closer to the 'ideal world' than we are in the UK, and they are laughing at us.

Today, I visited a cattle rancher in Paraguay, farming is a sub-tropical area which receives 60"+ a year who keeps cattle outside all year round and doesn't own a shed or a tractor. He too is a lot closer to the 'ideal world' scenario than we are in the UK and he is laughing at us.

The cow can collect its own feed. The cow can spread its own dung. The cow has evolved over tens of thousands of years to live outside. During the past few decades, we have been sold pieces of a jigsaw that don't fit together. It is time to stand back, look at what makes money and what costs money and don't say 'it can't be done' but instead say 'how do I change?'


  1. Bloody brilliant, Tom!!!!!. I will read this post every time I feel weak and want to buy a tractor.

  2. Makes me want to sell mine, Tom, what about temperature ,

  3. Thanks both of you.

    Mark, by temperature, I presume you mean that the grass stops growing for part of the year here in the UK - much as it does in Missouri or Buenos Aires or even Paraguay (though to a lesser extent).

    In the UK, we plan for this period by conserving grass as silage for the winter feeding. In other countries, they defer grazing for winter feeding - ie they are left with a 'standing hay crop' rather than a barn full of expensive feed. The cow self-feeds on this at no cost.

    I'm not sure whether we could ever get to a point in the UK where cattle are never housed, though I believe with the correct management, stocking rates and stock densities, there's no reason why we can't do so. However what would be simple for many farms is to change the way they manage their livestock to shorten the winter housing and feeding period from the traditional 180-200 days that is the norm.

    Every day saved would reduce costs, improve the bottom line, make the enterprise more competitive and decrease the amount of fossil fuels used.

  4. Hi Tom great blog I heard about it from some mates in NZ! Did you come across any integrated sheep and beef systems? I am trying to achieve this on 1700mm of rain with limited spring grass resulting in 180 day winter farming from 550ft to 3000ft. It would be great to talk to someone htat has tried to figure it out before I take a leap!