Nordic grass-based beef production and climate change in the focus

Nordic grass-based beef production and climate change in the focus

Grass fields are a specialty of Northern agriculture – an extensive Finnish project aims for climate change mitigation and resource efficiency

What kind of role can Finnish agriculture play as a mitigator of climate change? An extensive project portfolio launched in January 2019 brings together Finnish food production players and top teams in climate and grass research.

Participants in the CARBO collaboration network, convened by Valio, include Atria Tuottajat, the Finnish Meteorological Institute, Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke), University of Eastern Finland and Yara. The research and development projects focusing especially on carbon sequestration in grass fields are also working with many smaller companies and research groups.

The goal is to reduce the environmental impacts of the Finnish milk and meat chain using research data, new innovations and farm pilots. At the same time, the profitability of Finnish agriculture and its competitiveness on export markets will be improved. The project is also responding to changes in consumer demand for more transparency and sustainability in the primary production of food. Business Finland has contributed EUR 3.5 million in support for the three-year project totaling EUR 8 million.

Finland a trendsetter in responsible food production

The collaboration network was initiated on the basis of Valio's goal: the dairy company owned by Finnish dairy farms is aiming for a carbon-neutral footprint in milk production. It is possible to achieve this ambitious goal if there is a significant increase in carbon sequestration in grass fields, and if the energy contained in manure is utilized to replace fossil fuels. Reaching the goal also requires new technologies.

"We want to make Finland a model country and trendsetter in responsible food production. It’s great that so many producers see the opportunities of Nordic nature and agriculture. For example, yogurt looks pretty much the same around the world, but the production methods vary. Here in Finland cows eat mainly grass fodder from the farms where they are raised, as Finland's harsh conditions yield better grass harvests than many food crops. In other places around the world, cows are often fed soy, which would be suitable as such also for human consumption. We want to build an even more sustainable chain rather than outsourcing the environmental impacts elsewhere. In 2019−2020 we will work with the Baltic Sea Action Group to train the first 200 Valio milk producers to become carbon farmers," says Anu Kaukovirta-Norja, Senior Vice President, Research and Technology at Valio.

"Exploring new innovative solutions for carbon sequestration is important. Business Finland considers the development of responsible operations that also set a global trend as something that is very important," says Outi Suomi, Program Manager of the Bio and Circular Finland program at Business Finland.

Verifying carbon sequestering through research

Vegetation and soil carbon sinks are the most effective and cheapest way to remove carbon from the atmosphere. In order to utilize measures that strengthen carbon sinks, a way to verify the carbon sequestering is needed.

"At the Finnish Meteorological Institute, we are developing a system to reliably measure the carbon sequestration of vegetation and soil. Having a measuring system enables the planning and wide-scale adoption of measures that strengthen the carbon sequestration of soil. In the project we are also researching what practical measures can be used to best sequester carbon in soil in conjunction with food production. Among other things, the research at the pilot farms is focusing on how the number of different grass species, the mowing height of the grass, and the fertilizer used affect the ability of the grass to sequester carbon," says the head of the unit, Research Professor Jari Liski, from the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Natural Institute Finland (Luke) and the University of Eastern Finland have teamed up to perform carbon measurements in the fields in Maaninka, Northern Savonia. 

"Luke's central goal is to find out how farming techniques can be used to feasibly combine grassland carbon sequestration and feed production. This is important especially now because the weak profitability of agriculture means that environmental solutions must be realizable in a cost efficient manner," says Principal Scientist Perttu Virkajärvi from Luke.

"Minimizing greenhouse gases in milk production is a tough goal, but it is possible to achieve by utilizing the results of goal-oriented research work. At the University of Eastern Finland, our biogeochemistry research team has long been studying the greenhouse gas emissions of agricultural countries. Cleanly produced food is vital for people and our environment. Most important in this project is the strong collaboration with other players," notes Associate Professor Marja Maljanen from the University of Eastern Finland.

Grass crop performance and animal welfare are key in the climate work of farms

In the project, Yara, known for its fertilizer solutions, is focusing on improving the grass crops of Finnish farms using digitalization and resource efficiency.

"We want to develop a new kind of field section-specific process control for grass production that is based on strong scientific evidence. When we utilize digital solutions in grass production control, we can increase the productivity of the grass fields. A key aspect is the optimized use of nutrients and controlling the annual fluctuation of the amount and quality of the grass crop. Yara's goal is to create a resource-efficient grass chain that guarantees a more efficient, sustainable and transparent milk and meat production in Finnish conditions," summarizes Jari Pentinmäki, Director Marketing and Business Development, Yara Europe.

Finnish cattle must demonstrate its justification from the climate sustainability perspective. As part of the project, Atria is developing climate sustainable methods for raising cattle. In Finland, beef is produced with grass-prominent feed, without soy. The ability of grass to sequester carbon and sustainable animal breeding practices offer a solution in building a carbon-neutral food chain.

 

"For us, it is important to work with successful livestock farms to produce the world's cleanest meat today and in the future. In last summer’s World Steak Challenge, the steak from our Danish partner JN Meat International, from Atria's Finnish beef, was chosen as the world's best steak. The secret to the world's best beef is in Finnish grass  it is proven to bring added value all the way to the export markets," says Sinikka Hassinen, Director of Beef Procurement from Atria.

A special characteristic and opportunity for Finnish milk and meat production: grass field feeds cows and sequesters carbon

  • Roughly 40 percent of the world’s farmland is grassland and pastures that can only be used to produce human food with, mainly, the help of ruminants (Source: United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization*). The global population is growing to 10 billion people, which means we will continue to need grassland and ruminants to produce food in the future – all while having to increase the share of vegetables in the global diet. It is essential that milk and meat are produced in the most resource-savvy manner possible in areas that have sufficient water – like in Finland.

 

  • In Finland, cattle mainly eat farm-grown grass feed and some amounts of grains and rapeseed/canola. In many other countries, cattle are mainly fed grains, soy and maize, all of which are suitable as such for human consumption. The environmental impacts are also reduced by the fact that the meat of dairy cows and their offspring ends up on our dinner plates. The milk and meat production in many countries are separate from each other, which leads to less efficient use of resources. That is why the healthy and well-producing cattle in Finland fare well in a comparison of environmental impacts.

 

  • Healthy soil binds and stores atmospheric carbon. It’s also efficient at retaining nutrients so that nitrogen and phosphorus do not runoff into water systems. Multiseasonal grassland can sequester carbon. Farmers can improve carbon sequestration with, e.g., crop rotation, improving the spectrum of grass species, and keeping the fields green for as much of the year as possible.

 

  • Finnish cattle methane emissions have been reduced by half in 50 years with improved animal production potential, health and nutrition. At the same time, the number of animals has decreased. Now we need new ways to reduce emissions. In addition to the carbon sequestration of grass production, other solutions include, e.g., manure nutrient recycling and biogas produced from manure to replace fossil fuels. The milk chain’s share of Finland’s greenhouse gas total has stood at 3-4 percent since the year 2000 (Statistics Finland 2017).

 

*Grasslands of the world. Plant Production and Protection Series No. 34. Toim. Suttie, Reynolds and C. Batello. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2005.

http://www.fao.org/docrep/008/y8344e/y8344e05.htm

Are grasslands under threat? Brief analysis of FAO statistical data on pasture and fodder crops, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/uploads/media/grass_stats_1.pdf