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To your average passer-by Cambridge University Farm may look like your usual farm, complete with over 200 cows and a similar number of sheep, but there’s far more to this farm than meets the eye. The history of the Farm stretches back to 1900 when it was established in Impington, but in recent years the Farm has experienced more than just a relocation – it’s been busy making impressive changes and commitments through a new Sustainability Policy.

For those of you who didn’t even know we had a farm, Cambridge University Farm is a commercial business owned by the University and, since 1997, found at the aptly-named Park Farm in Madingley. One of the primary purposes of the Farm is to act as a teaching resource to the Department of Veterinary Medicine, and with over 230 dairy cows and 280 sheep, it provides a unique learning environment. As well as keeping livestock, approximately 550 hectares (think just over 550 rugby pitches!) is farmed and this area includes Madingley Park, a registered Park Garden originally designed by Capability Brown.

Farming for the future

Given the potential impact of its practices and policies, the University Farm works to a number of core aims of animal welfare but also of environmental sustainability, including farming in a sustainable manner. Part of this aim is maintaining and enhancing the conservation value of the farm. In 2011, solar panels were installed on the farm and, since 2019 replacing inefficient lighting with fitted LED lights has resulted in a saving of 19 tonnes p.a. of CO2 in the dairy building alone. In 2020 the University Farm went much, much further with its sustainability aspirations by adopting a ten-year Sustainability Policy, supported by regularly-updated implementation plans.

Minimising the carbon footprint of the Farm’s dairy enterprise was a key driver in developing the Sustainability Policy. The Farm’s cows produce 2 million litres of milk per year, which is supplied to Arla, a brand you may find in your fridge at home. Back in 2019 the University Farm volunteered to be part of an initial group of 100 producers providing baseline data on the CO2e footprint of Arla’s supply chain in the UK. The findings were revealing, with the CO2e footprint of milk produced at the University coming in at 1.175kg/l, against an average for Arla production in Denmark of 0.97kg/l. It was clear that there was room for improvement, both in terms of the viability of the business enterprise but also in terms of carbon savings. Building on this data, the Farm has committed to reducing the CO2e per litre of milk produced by 30% by 2030, compared to the 2018/19 baseline.

Speaking about the new Sustainability Policy, Paul Kelly, Dairy Farm Manager says:

“As an industry we can’t stand still and must look for ways to improve our business which includes reducing our cost of production and focusing on sustainability. The carbon footprint audit of the dairy proved very useful and it confirmed the areas where we needed to improve. The farm has our sustainability targets but this is a collective effort and now we encourage the rest of the supply chain to set their own targets in order for us all to reduce our carbon footprint.”

In order to become an exemplar of best practice, the aims of the Sustainability Policy stretch much farther than those related specifically to the dairy enterprise however. Aspirations include reducing the CO2e per kg of wheat produced by 30% from the 2018/19 baseline by 2030, and by 10% per kg of lamb over the same period. The first three-year implementation plan includes a whole host of actions, particularly around process efficiency. Actions which are already underway to lower the carbon footprint of the Farm include improving herd health by introducing new protocols for newborn calves and improving ventilation in dairy buildings. Improved herd health means the cows utilise their feed more efficiently in producing milk, leading to a lower carbon cost per litre produced. Improving silage quality has also been a primary focus, by cutting the grass more frequently when grass is younger it increases the quality of silage and reduces reliance on purchased feed. For the last six years, soya has not been used in feed and palm oil is only used where it is certified as sustainability sourced.

But what about Biodiversity?

The Farm’s aspirations don’t stop there. Aware of the need for a multi-faceted approach to sustainability the team are committed to farming practices that protect and enhance soils, as well as maximising the benefit of slurries and manures to reduce reliance on bought-in fertilisers. Peter Wilderspin, Rural Surveyor, oversees a lot of work on the Farm and has been involved as a staff representative on the University’s Ecological Advisory Panel since its beginnings. Peter played a key role in consultations surrounding the developing of the University’s recently-launched Biodiversity Action Plan, and the work of both Peter and the Farm, continues to be vital to the implementation of the Biodiversity Action Plan.

For many years the Farm has also committed to improving the environmental value of its farmland through Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) and Entry Level Stewardship (ELS) agreements that run until 2023. These agreements include features for biodiversity such as growing legume and herb-rich swards, wild bird seed mixes, nectar flower mixes, leaving over-wintered stubbles, managing some permanent pasture under low and no-input systems, and buffers are provided to protect hedges, margins and watercourses.

Through the first stage of implementing the Biodiversity Action Plan, Peter, Paul and the team at the Farm will be exploring enhancing field boundary habitats in particular. Actions could include planting up ‘gappy’ hedgerows, holding water in field drainage ditches to create permanent aquatic habitats, extending arable field margins to benefit wildlife, and continuing to use a sparing approach by farming in specified production areas in order to allow biodiversity space elsewhere.

Next steps

Running a viable business and reducing negative environmental impacts may seem contrary objectives but, as work continues at the Farm, it is evident that one can benefit the other. Throughout their sustainability journey the University Farm have engaged with a multitude of stakeholders, from the University’s Sustainability Team to suppliers. Currently, the University Farm is working closely with the Sustainability Team to explore the viability of capturing the methane naturally produced from cow slurry to burn in a Combined Heat and Power (CHP) engine to produce electricity and hot water for the farm’s use (this process is known as anaerobic digestion). Methane has a much greater CO2e than CO2 and so, if viable, this project could reduce the Farm’s local emissions and provide an energy source whilst utilising a waste product and contributing to the Farm’s circular economy aims. A win-win!

Watch the video below to find out more about the University Farm and its future. 

Written by Jess Haskell with significant input from Peter Wilderspin and Paul Kelly