Working Towards Net Zero Carbon Emissions: How do we reduce emissions from beef?

With Scotland working towards net zero carbon emissions by 2045, the Scottish agriculture sector has a key role to play. The focus isn’t on reducing the number of livestock, but instead about how we can make our production more efficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, in tandem with locking more carbon onto the farm.

Improving on-farm efficiencies strongly correlates with reduced production costs per kg of beef sold, increasing profitability for the farm business. Making better use of inputs and improving livestock productivity helps to reduce emissions. We also have the scope to lock carbon into the farm, providing opportunities for offsetting individual farm emissions.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions represents a challenge, but one with clear opportunities.

So what practical measures can we consider?

There’s no ‘one size fits all’, but a range of ideas that you can pick from and adapt to suit to your farm, improving profitability and environmental performance. General principles include:

  • Improving and protecting soil health – healthy farm soils could increase length of turn out and improve stock carrying capacity.
  • Nutrient management – optimum nutrient and pH management could save on the fertiliser bill; appropriate and timely application could further reduce greenhouse gas losses.
  • Grassland management – improved grazing and pasture management could help you get more beef from grass.
  • Breeding and fertility management – getting cows in calf.
  • Calf management – weaning and liveweight gain.
  • Feeding and rations – cost effective and faster finishing.
  • Health and disease management – making sure the whole herd is healthy and performing as well as possible.

A number of our practical guides cover these topics in more detail. We take a brief look at some of the topics below.

Practical ideas to consider

Improvement in productive efficiency is the most important factor that farmers have within their control to reduce emissions and positively steer profit. Findings from the Climate Change Focus Farms show that greenhouse gas emission reductions are achievable, even on already technically efficient farms, and compatible with maximising farm profits.

Example efficiency measure 1 – Increase calf sales

Ensuring suckler cow fertility is not unduly compromised is an essential aspect of maximising live calf numbers. This includes good husbandry practices such as selecting replacements from fertile stock, use of EBV’s, bull fertility checks, condition scoring cows, good grassland management, biosecurity measures, health planning and many other small but cumulatively significant practices.

Using SAC data it was shown that achieving 5% greater calf numbers (reducing barren cows and calf mortality by 5 in 100 cows bred) could improve finisher cattle sales by over 3t liveweight per 100 cows and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10% per kg carcase weight.

Example efficiency measure 2 – Improve nutrient use

Targeting and applying manure and fertiliser to crop requirements is an effective method of reducing purchased fertiliser cost and increasing nutrient utilisation (minimising nutrients lost to the environment) without compromising crop yield. A 10% reduction in fertiliser purchase could reduce the carbon footprint by 2% per kg carcase weight.

Example efficiency measure 3 – Improve forage quality

Healthy soils, unimpaired field drainage, modern grass varieties and timely field operations present an opportunity to increase forage quality without compromising yield. Improved forage quality will encourage intakes, promoting young stock growth-rates or off-set purchased feed use.

Improving grass silage energy content by 1MJ/kg DM over six-month feeding period is equivalent to around 90kg barley or an additional 35kg live weight in a growing beef ration. In this scenario, selling 2.5% additional carcase weight reduced emissions by around 6% per kg carcase weight.

Next Steps?

  • If you haven’t already, complete a carbon footprint for your farm. This will allow you to benchmark your livestock enterprise with other like businesses. How do you compare and which areas could be more profitable for you?
  • Take a look at the other Practical Guide titles in this series. Is there anything you could do differently to benefit your farm and reduce greenhouse gas emissions?
  • Review your carbon footprint on an annual basis. Develop an action plan based on technical performance targets. This should aim to take one step at a time towards a more efficient, lower cost system with a reduced carbon footprint, helping to demonstrate an ongoing move towards net zero carbon emissions from Scotland’s agricultural sector.

What are the main emissions from farms and where do they come from?

The three GHG emissions of concern from livestock farms include:

Carbon dioxide (CO2) from power and fuel use (e.g. tractor operations, shed lighting and milk cooling equipment).

Methane (CH4) from enteric fermentation in the rumen and  released from stored manures.  A dairy cow can produce up to 650 litres of CH4 a day!

Nitrous oxide (N2O) released from soils, manures and other fertilisers.

CH4 and N2O are 25 and 298 times more potent than CO2 respectively, and steps to reduce their emissions can positively impact on climate change.  Locking more carbon into the soil can also have an impact and is called carbon sequestration.  This can be achieved by changing land use e.g. converting arable into grassland and  planting trees to improve soil structure and organic matter   content.

Find out more in our Practical Guide: Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Carbon footprinting

What are the main emissions from farms and where do they come from?

A carbon footprint (CFP) highlights GHG emissions across the business and can benchmark performance against similar enterprises, indicating where The Agrecalc logo in black text and a transparent background emissions are high.  This may reflect poor utilisation of costly inputs.  Reducing the CPF not only benefits the environment but usually results in cost savings as well, making the business more profitable.  Agrecalc is the CFP tool developed by SAC Consulting and is free to farmers. Find out more at

Read more about the benefits of a carbon footprint for dairy farms in our Practical Guide.

The Scottish Government will help fund the cost of consultancy support needed to carry out a Carbon Audit. Find out the full details and apply online on the Farm Advisory Service website.

Related Practical Guides

Download a PDF copy of this Practical Guide

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