Hear from our Health and Education Manager, Alix, who shares her knowledge on the importance of grass in our ecosystem.
Scotland’s landscape is iconic across the world; with rolling hills and green-grass fields with sheep grazing or cattle lying peacefully – probably an indication that another shower of rain isn’t far away!
In fact, around 82% of Scotland is covered in grassland – much of which is not suitable for growing crops or vegetables – often because the terrain is too steep, the soil too shallow or the fields inaccessible to the large machinery required for such farming.
If you are interested in hill walking, football, golf, rugby or going to the park there is something that you have in common with Scottish Livestock farmers – you need grass! For many livestock farmers in Scotland, grass is their most important crop and farmers spend a lot of time, money and effort in ensuring that they get the most out of their grass crop.
Ruminants (animals such as cattle and sheep that have four compartments to their stomach) are unique in that they can consume grass and convert it into energy which can then be converted into human protein.
Grass growth starts when the soil temperature reaches 5° so usually in the Springtime. Farmers then graze their animals on the lush green grass throughout the year. Throughout the summer months most farmers harvest some of their excess grass to create silage or hay. This is then stored to feed to the animals throughout the winter months when grass growth slows or stops.
Grass & Sustainability
As well as feeding Scotland’s cattle and sheep grass has numerous other benefits to the environment and even enables livestock farmers to lower their carbon footprint. If farmers are able to grow as much grass as possible (through management practices) and utilise it well, they can reduce their reliance on other feeds.
Also, by adding clover into their grass fields they can naturally fix nitrogen from the air into the soil which reduces their dependency on artificial fertilisers.
The list of grass benefits goes on – it can also reduce the risk of flooding; provide soil stability which prevents topsoil erosion and well grazed grasslands can also absorb carbon from the air – the same way that trees do! This carbon absorption is called carbon sequestration and is the process by which carbon is absorbed from the atmosphere and incorporated into the soil through plant intake and decomposition.
Grass & Biodiversity
Livestock grazing is crucial in encouraging and maintaining biodiversity. Without maintaining a low level of grazing across grasslands, species-rich grasslands are replaced by taller, wild grasses which lowers species diversity. This was demonstrated when agricultural subsidies (the money paid by government to farmers) moved to area payments, which resulted in large areas of grassland becoming unmanaged, and consequently a sharp decrease in the area’s biodiversity.
Farmers also need to ensure they are not overgrazing their grass as this reduces moisture capture which increases for run-off and flooding, degrades the availability for biodiversity and reduces the leaf available to capture sunlight and reduces the grass’ ability to capture carbon.
Grazing practices can have an impact on several different species including insects, farmland birds, waders (such as lapwing and curlew), soil biodiversity and wild animals. By managing the grasslands on livestock farms farmers are doing much more than just feeding their animals, they are helping maintain the natural balance of biodiversity.
So, next time you gaze out at the iconic Scottish landscape perhaps you will notice the grass and realise its many wonderful properties, not least in producing local, high quality Scotch Lamb and Scotch Beef that we can enjoy.
Find out more
If you want to find out more you can visit Farming Foodsteps, our digital education resource designed to educate secondary school aged pupils about the red meat food system. For teachers wishing to educate pupils further about the importance of grass there is the Glorious Grass Activity.