This Green and Pleasant Land: How diligent dairy practices can save our soil and capture carbon

The connection between healthy land and healthy livestock is a relationship as old as our green and pleasant land – and one that farmers have observed and practiced for thousands of years. Rolling green hills and the, at times, seemingly endless rain have been the building blocks that have made the UK and Republic of Ireland responsible for the heroic effort of producing 14% of the EU’s milk , while in 2016, the UK alone produced 2% of the entire global milk supply.

Often, animal agriculture can be pitched as one of the greatest villains in the fight against climate change. Whilst the claims against livestock farming are not entirely unfounded, the argument can sometimes lose its nuance. Intensive farming practices using agrochemicals, continuous harvest, barning, heavy machinery and rearing livestock on unsuitable land can indeed cause worrying soil erosion. However, dairy farms that diligently link their herd’s behaviour to their land create healthy topsoil teeming with earthworms, beetles, roots and clovers, nourished by dung rather than poisoned by slurry. It can take literally thousands of years for this to be created in a healthy balance.

“Farming with biology rather than chemistry will increase the biodiversity of the farm. It will, eventually, also require less physical input because the cows live naturally outside, grazing and fertilising the land.”
Ed Hooper, Organic Farmer, The Independent 2019

60% of the small, luscious archipelago that constitutes the British Isles is grass, a landscape which undoubtedly lends itself to the grazing of cattle and sheep. Many of these pastures are too hilly for growing crops but provide easy access for cloven hooves. These uplands, when tended to by our large three-stomached friends increase the soil’s ability to hold moisture, which can in turn help prevent devastating floods, such as those recently seen across the UK and is also where 70% of the UK’s drinking water is collected.

Careful management of livestock has been an integral part of healthy, sustainable ecosystems for millennia. Many dairy farmers in the UK are stepping back in time and embracing traditional regenerative farming models to build soil health, capture carbon and produce flourishing bio-diverse landscapes. Crucially, these methods also serve to protect their animals and make delicious dairy products.

Testament to the exceptional taste of milk sourced from cows free to roam, is our own supplier, Cotteswold Dairy. Their Free Range milk is one of the few certified pasture promise Free Range milks in the country. This certification means that the cows that produce this milk are guaranteed to have a minimum of 180 days and nights per year to graze. This same milk has won numerous awards, not least a Great Taste award.

Ruth and Richard Baker of Pensworth Dairy are another of the milk farmers we work with. Their 200-acre plot, formally part of the Chiltern Farm Estate has been worked by their family since 1928. Over the past decade they have cultivated the land to 30 acres of arable and 170 acres of grass. Their herd is kept outside for as much of the year as possible. Ruth explains the yearly cycle: “From April our cows are out in the field grazing, then coming in twice a day to be milked and in wintertime they come in to covered straw yards.”

“Our animals get fed on a grass-based diet; in summer they are just grazing. They get new grass to go to every single day – we’re moving the fence every day in the field, so they’ve always got fresh grass ahead of them, so they’ve got enough to eat. Simple system and that’s how it’s always been done.”

This ‘mob grazing’, as the Pasture For Life Association (PFLA) refers to it, is outstanding for soil health. The herd are led to graze in a small acreage of the farm, their hooves massaging the topsoil to reveal species for birds to feed on and wake up root systems. The next day a new piece of grass gets manicured and trampled, while yesterday’s pasture is left to recover until the next time. According to director of Pasture for Life, Sara Gregson , “that way of taking vegetation down and letting organisms pull the organic matter into the soil is the best way to improve soil health.”

This ancient way of farming avoids soil compaction, which in turn directly affects the health of dairy cattle. High iron, potassium and molybdenum levels are associated with compact soils, which can affect fertility, increase milk fever and impair the immune system, leading to the unnecessary use of antibiotics through the herd. According to a study in the Ecology Letters Journal, long-term exposure to manure from cows administered with antibiotics can change soil microbiome and decrease their ability to store carbon. Herds out for pasture, creating their own healthy soil and grazing conditions need fewer antibiotics. This means that the dung they produce can then be used to feed the soil beneath, benefiting beetles, fungi, bacteria and earth worms, while the grass that is then grown from this soil can be grazed on by healthy cattle. And thus, the circle of grazing life is complete.

“Cows face the same problem as us, they have to get their Omega 3 from their
diet, it matters what they eat.”
Michael Mosley, The Secrets of your Food, BBC 2017

It must be remembered that whatever a dairy cow consumes, the milk drinker is consuming too. Some regenerative farmers are moving to planting pasture borders with a variety of trees and shrubs in order to rear healthy cows and curb disease. Willow leaves for example, when eaten by dairy cows are a natural source of salicin, an alternative to aspirin, which can calm inflammation from mastitis or lameness. Meanwhile, the tannins found in these leaves can reduce nematode worms and other parasites in cattle, all serving to reduce the need for chemical intervention. Meanwhile, besides the inarguable health benefits for the cattle themselves, better farming practices are evident in tastier, creamier milk, rich in calcium and fatty acids to feed human bones and brains. Just ask Cotteswold Dairy.

And if these arguments don’t convince you, according to Compassion in World Farming , the “UK dairy industry figures show that pasture-based systems are actually highly competitive financially – in fact, on a litre-for-litre basis, farmers can expect to make more per pint from a litre of milk in extensive rather than intensive systems.” Soil compaction can reduce grass growth by 40% and in turn this compaction can raise production costs per tonne of dairy milk by 40% . Looking into the not-so-distant future, regardless of weather, harvesting method, chemicals or, lack thereof, soil condition will have the most notable impact on quantity and quality of our dairy products. The business case for regenerative farming is stark.

“Better quality milk is something that will benefit everybody in the long-term. Looking after our farmers. Quality milk is better for our health and gives the UK economy a lift. The dairy industry needs champions.”
Dan Reid, Category Head for Dairy. idc Ltd

Our farmers steward ancient ecosystems which keep us and the earth healthy. In the UK we are lucky enough to have an abundance of land, allowing waterfalls of the white stuff to pour forth. Rough shod hooves on rotational pastures capture carbon, increase biodiversity and turn the topsoil as they slowly tread on through, serving not only those of us that drink our milky fill, but the planet we live on.