A proposal to lower the slaughter age for beef cattle in order to reduce their carbon footprint has divided opinions in the livestock industry – and drawn criticism from Norfolk farmers.

The National Beef Association (NBA) has suggested lowering the 30-month slaughter age for prime animals to 27 months, and adding a “carbon tax” on prime animals slaughtered above that age, in a bid to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with beef production.

Speaking on the BBC’s Farming Today radio programme, NBA board member Jude Capper described it is a “win-win”, adding: “It will be more cost effective for producers in that they don’t have to manage these cattle for the extra two or three months. It will lower the carbon footprint because of the earlier slaughter age but also, importantly, if we slaughter animals earlier we free up feed and grazing resources so we can actually produce more [domestic] beef with a lower carbon footprint.”

While some farmers think the idea could boost efficiency while helping agriculture meet “net-zero” emissions targets, others argue it does not take account of the carbon cost of producing concentrated feed for more intensively-reared animals, or the benefits of slower-reared animals in regenerative, grass-fed systems which store carbon in green pastures.

James Runciman has a herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus and Simmental cattle at Croxton near Fakenham and is a member of the National Farmers’ Union’s regional livestock board.

Eastern Daily Press: James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian BurtJames Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian Burt (Image: Archant 2018)

“I can see both sides,” he said. “We need efficiency and we are way behind pigs and poultry in terms of efficiency but we are dealing with so many variables in terms of breeds, location, food availability, production systems, we cannot just have a bulk production system.

“To try and get animals finished by 27 months is fine for the continental breeds or the more modern English breeds, but that is going to need concentrated feeds and potentially imported soya, which we are trying to reduce. So I cannot see how reducing the slaughter age from 30 months to 27 is going to achieve anything.

“The inefficient animals will grow well on poor grass, so there is no point bunging expensive concentrated feed into them because you will lose your green credentials without getting that efficient growth.

“The feed involved in pushing cattle harder to grow them quicker could be more harmful [environmentally] than letting them graze on poor grass which we couldn’t do anything else with, and which is capturing and storing carbon.

Eastern Daily Press: Nicola Chapman at Carr Farm, Burgh St Peter, with her award-winning herd of Belted Galloway cattle. Picture: Chris HillNicola Chapman at Carr Farm, Burgh St Peter, with her award-winning herd of Belted Galloway cattle. Picture: Chris Hill (Image: Chris Hill)

“This idea might help some people become more efficient, but it is an interference we don’t need. We need the animals to grow as efficiently as we can, but as sustainably as we can.”

Mr Runciman suggested a more positive approach could be to pay a premium for prime animals finished under 27 months, rather than penalising slower-grown animals.

READ MORE: ‘We had 20pc of our annual rainfall in five days’ - farmers’ concerns amid autumn delugesNicola Chapman runs the Waveney herd of pedigree Belted Galloway cattle under a grass-fed “Pasture For Life” system at Carr Farm in Burgh St Peter, near Beccles.

She said although the NBA acknowledges exemptions would be needed for rare breeds and conservation grazing, the proposals ignore the benefits of other pasture-fed herds.

“Our animals rarely get to the abattoir before 30 months, which is the existing cut-off,” she said. “That is going to be the same for a lot of proper natives and rare breeds, and also a lot of other people using different systems which are 100pc grass-fed, as it is a longer process.

“In my opinion, I wouldn’t want it to detract from the good environmental work that people are doing under Pasture For Life schemes. Other farms are doing things like mob grazing and sequestering large amounts of carbon in grazing land, and that is not being taken into account.”