Getting maximum gain from low input systems

Sustainable low input livestock systems must be underpinned by profitability to allow for reinvestment, according to speakers at a recent NSA Meeting. Emily Padfield reports.

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Getting maximum gain from low input systems

Sustainable low input livestock systems must be underpinned by profitability to allow for reinvestment, according to speakers at a recent NSA Meeting. Emily Padfield reports.

Delivering sustainability on-farm relies on making profits from our systems to allow each farm to reinvest, said Louise Manning, professor of sustainable agri-food systems at the University of Lincoln.

Speaking at a NSA-organised meeting looking at maximum gain from low input systems, Prof Manning, who along with her family runs a 1,000-head Lleyn sheep flock, a broiler unit and a calf rearing business, said: “Low input farming systems seek to optimise the management and use of on-farm resources, minimise production inputs like purchased fertilisers and pesticides wherever feasible and practicable to lower production costs.

“At the same time the system should aim to avoid pollution of surface and groundwater, reduce pesticide residues in food, reduce a farmer’s overall risk and increase both short- and long-term farm profitability.”

Protein provider

She said she saw her own family’s farm as a ‘protein provider’.

“This is achieved and underpinned by the development and management of a resilient grassland.

“Projects such as silvopasture and in-field planting of trees funded by Higher Level and Mid-Tier Stewardship are among some of the ways of achieving some of these goals.”

Although low input farming was ‘very farm-specific’, Prof Manning said delivering food security and environmental gains was possible, but it had to be underpinned by profitable and economically-sustainable farm systems.

Performance indicators key to improving resilience

The meeting also included a tour of James MacCartney’s farming business at Flitteriss Park Farm, Oakham, Rutland.

Mr MacCartney explained he ran 800 breeding ewes, 150 fattening cattle and a pumpkin diversification enterprise on 170 hectares (420 acres).

He said: “Our mission statement is to provide a business for the next generation with profitable livestock production at its heart.”


Having traditionally run North Country Mules, he said the farm was switching over to lower-input Lleyns.

Each year 150 calves are bought and reared, half of these being kept to fatten.

Key performance indicators (KPIs) included days to slaughter; cattle at 650kg at 600 days and a slaughter target of 20 weeks for lambs; scanning percentages; scanning to lambing losses; tonnes of DM produced and the nutritional value of fodder.

He said improved grass leys, cover cropping and herbal leys were central to production on the farm with permanent pasture also playing its role.

“Any improvements in KPIs lead to higher gross margins,” he said.

“Our objectives are health, nutrition and genetics. But I am also acutely aware of keeping it simple as I also want time off to spend with my young family.”

NSA Erasmus Project

The meeting also highlighted the findings of the E-Organic Erasmus research project, of which, the NSA was the sole UK partner.

This was an EU-funded, Turkish-led research project, which aimed to look at organic livestock systems across Europe, and it saw both Mr McCartney and fellow NSA member Mike Adams travel to study sustainable systems overseas.

First-generation organic sheep farmer Mr Adams, who farms near Rutland, visited Italy, Portugal and Turkey.

He said: “Everyone is challenged environmentally, socially and financially, regardless of region.

“In Italy, high temperatures mean dairy cows have to be housed, as well as other livestock. But farmers who do this have developed strategies of how to work with the climate.

“For example, lucerne silage is not ideal for dairy goats, so barns have mezzanine floors which allows hot air to rise and dry bales stacked into hay.”

He said in Portugal trees were used to keep livestock cool and diverse grazing was far more typical with bushes and trees being grazed for minerals and vitamins, as well as for encroachment management.

“Grass also grows better in partial shade, so it was impressive to see how many animals could be grazed here.”


As part of a wider travel programme for his Nuffield scholarship, this first tour also gave Mr MacCartney an insight into European perspectives and how they differ from the UK.

He said: “The farming system and products offered seemed to be driven by the farmer’s individual values and ethics rather than knee-jerk reactions to external pressures from things like legislation changes and subsidies.”

He also said farmers were working with climate extremes and adapting their systems to achieve success.

“The take homes from my travels were definitely how farmers we visited were much more product- and quality-driven than some here in the UK.”

TILE SHEDS FARM - Morpeth, Northumberland

TILE SHEDS FARM - Morpeth, Northumberland