A Wensleydale couple farming near Orton in Cumbria are producing certified ‘carbon neutral beef’, following a carbon audit which proved a catalyst for big changes to their upland farming system.
Jenny and Lenny Bowes, tenants of the 600 acre Ghyll Bank Farm at Raisgill, have cut sheep numbers by half to 500 breeding ewes while being on course to double the beef cattle herd to 150 beasts.
They have stopped using bought-in fertiliser and feed, adopted new grassland management aided by GPS technology, changed sheep breeds to lamb later and outside, created three flower and herb rich meadows, and put together a plan for planting trees and hedges. Other regular inputs such as bedding material, silage wrap and fence posts and wire have been reduced, with wrap and metals all sent for recycling.
The changes mean the farm business is now ‘net zero’ according to Farm Carbon Toolkit, as it is sequestering as much carbon from the atmosphere as it is adding to it through the release of greenhouse gases.
Ghyll Bank Farm is one of 14 farms in either the Yorkshire Dales National Park or Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) to have participated in the ‘Farm Carbon Project’, designed and funded by a partnership including the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, the AONB, Yorkshire Water and the York & North Yorkshire LEP. A final report on the project has been made public today.
Jenny Bowes said: “The carbon audit has completely changed the way we do things. Everything we do we think, ‘Ooh how’s that going to affect our carbon’.
“We’ve found a way that you can work with the environment, while not letting the environment stop your productivity. I think we’ve had more productivity on our new system. We’re looking at the profit margin. We’ve got a better deal with the wholesalers, with Lake District Farmers, than we would have had if we hadn’t got the carbon neutral beef certification. It’s a great market.”
Although tree planting is a big part of their plans – currently the farm has only 157 trees – it is changes to grassland management that are making the big difference to the farm business’s carbon performance. Herbal leys, for instance, have been added to pastures as part of the move away from artificial fertiliser.
Lenny Bowes said: “We’ve got natural nitrogen fixers in the grassland – clovers, trefoils – drawing the nitrogen down from the atmosphere. We’ve got varied root length, that’s the thing. You’ve got timothy and cocksfoot and you’ve got plantain with a really deep tap root. That is drawing carbon down but it’s also taking minerals up, and you find they start to outcompete the thistles. We’ve got to prove that grass is good.
“You’ve got to draw your carbon to below 30 centimetres because that’s where it stays locked up. And you can only do that with longer roots. When they come round carbon testing now they dig to half a metre. When we first started talking about carbon a couple of years ago we were only digging to a spade’s depth and now we’ve realised that you’ve got to go deeper.
“The biggest thing that I’ve noticed is lameness in the sheep – it’s gone. Just because we’re not as heavily stocked. And that was our single biggest expense, the cost of the medicines and loss of productivity. We used to put sheep in a building down there. They’d be fat in four weeks, but they’d be lame in three.”
Speaking whilst out on a high pasture called Kelleth Rigg, the Bowes said people told them they were ‘mad’ thinking they could keep cattle there during winter as the ground would be too wet.
Jenny Bowes said: “The better the root structure, the healthier the soil is and the more water it absorbs. The land is absorbing the water better. You can’t see footprints here. A drier field means you can winter cattle outside instead of needing to have them in the buildings and you can put more cattle outside because the ground can hold more, so it is more productive.
“We put in three new meadows last year: 27 different flowers and 16 different grasses. The seed came from meadows round here, so it’s got the most biodiversity that you could put in for this area.”
Lenny added: “You can’t just keep dosing sheep. If there’s a deficiency in the sheep, there’s a deficiency in the grass. You’ve got to work out what to plant so that the grass isn’t deficient any more, otherwise you’re buying remedies. We need to treat the cause rather than the effect. We’ve cut out medicine usage dramatically and we’re confident to switch to organic production now.”
Latest technology has helped cut carbon dioxide emissions associated with fencing and also with transporting fodder from the farm yard to the fields. All the Bowes’ native breed Belted Galloway cattle have been fitted with ‘no fence collars’. These are solar-powered GPS trackers which emit a sound and electric pulse if the cattle stray across a set of virtual boundaries drawn using a phone app. This allows for efficient grazing of rough areas which are difficult to fence.
The collars have assisted with the development of ‘deferred grazing’, where parts of pastures are kept free from livestock from the end of August to allow a grass wedge to build up. Only now in late winter is livestock being let in to these areas, meaning that the animals have grass to eat and do not need to be brought fodder using a tractor or quad bike.
Lenny Bowes said: “Farmers have been paid to produce cheap food but there’s no such thing as cheap food, because it comes at the expense of something – and it can’t come at the expense of the environment any more. We’re aiming on finding the farm’s maximum sustainable output. It’s trying to build a future proof business, to make profit beyond payments. We shouldn’t have to rely on handouts and the handouts are going to go anyway.”
Member Champion for the Natural Environment at the Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, Ian McPherson, said: “Farming produces more than half of the greenhouse gases emitted in the National Park. So farmers and landowners have a really important role to play in helping to address the climate and nature emergency. A farmed landscape has always been a core part of the National Park’s identity. What the farm carbon project has shown clearly is that upland farms can be thriving businesses and good for the environment.”
Iain Mann, Nidderdale AONB manager, said: “At Nidderdale AONB, we look forward to continuing our work supporting farmers to help combat the climate and biodiversity crises, including through our Farming in Protected Landscape programme. These grants can support farmers and landowners to deliver nature recovery and to adapt land management practices to store carbon and become more resilient a changing climate.”
York & North Yorkshire LEP board member and vice chair of the Grow Yorkshire organisation, Jan Thornton, said: “We are currently leading the development of York and North Yorkshire’s ‘Routemap to Carbon Negative’. Ghyll Bank Farm is a fantastic example of how a traditional farm business can transition to net-zero and in the process become more efficient and resilient through a range of carefully planned and managed interventions.”