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Farming at the maximum sustainable output

Date Published: 29/09/2023

Farming at the maximum sustainable output (MSO) can improve the resilience and commercial returns of a farm business.

In the second episode of the RASE Farm of the Future podcast, Martin Lines from the Nature Friendly Farming Network, joins Arran Redman from IfA and Natasha Smith from RASE to discuss how farm businesses can use the concept of MSO to improve profitability.

What is the maximum sustainable output?

Farming at the MSO point means farming within the capacity of the landscape. The MSO point is the level of output at which a farm is making best use of nature’s resources and is most profitable.

Earlier this year, the NFFN, Nethergill Associates and The Wildlife Trusts produced a report titled ‘Farming at the sweet spot: How Farming with nature can make you happier, healthier and wealthier.’ To produce the report, the team at Nethergill Associates carried out detailed financial analysis of 165 farm business accounts, to identify how the agricultural parts of the business can become more profitable.

The results of the study show that farm businesses improve their profitability if outputs are reduced to a level where production relies on natural resources such as sunlight, water and soil fertility, and other essential costs of production. This means a dramatic reduction in cost of inputs such as artificial fertilisers, pesticides and imported feed concentrate.

It is important to note that the MSO point is not static. As a farm builds up its natural resources, such as fertility in the soil, the MSO point can increase to a higher level of output.

MSO and livestock  

Martin speaks in the podcast about how many of the upland livestock farms involved in the study reduced stocking numbers for a period, which immediately improved commercial returns as they were able to reduce or completely avoid the need to buy in concentrates, feed, hay and straw.

By concentrating on grass growth, for example by introducing a richer mix with clovers and legumes to build fertility while reducing grazing for a period, the resilience in the grass fields improved. On some farms this led to the decision to introduce cattle as well as sheep to get a more diverse bite. As the grass continued to improve and free resources from nature were more effectively harnessed, the farms in the study found they could increase livestock units per hectare.

Furthermore, a reduction in livestock numbers by 20-50% can free up a shed and reduce the amount of time spent looking after livestock. The combination of more time and a free shed provides an opportunity to diversify farm income, for example by converting a superfluous shed into a holiday let.

MSO and arable systems

Farming at the MSO point is equally as effective in an arable system. Buying in fertilisers, pesticides and other inputs adds a cost to production. Farming in a way that improves soil quality, health and fertility, for example by using clovers, cover crops and manures, can help make the most of the free resources from nature – rain and sunlight. Farming then becomes the business of converting that energy into food, energy or other products that the landscape delivers, like flood prevention and habitat for pollinators.

Reduction of inputs also reduces hours spent on a tractor, the use of machinery and fuel. As well as saving costs, this also saves time, providing opportunity to focus on other things, spend more time with family and have more time off.

In the podcast, Martin shares that farming at the MSO point has led to a huge reduction in fossil fuel-based fertiliser on his own farm in Cambridgeshire. “Last year, half our winter wheat didn’t need any artificial fertiliser, and it maintained good yields.”

He highlights the importance of building fertility into the soil and understanding how that is depleted as it is farmed, so considering how to build it back up. “Use of different grass swards, application of manures, introduction of cover crops and sheep or cattle to graze them and build the biology and fertility of the soil are all options, it’s about selecting what will work best for any given farm business,” he says.  

Measurement plays an important role in management decisions. Having carbon mapped and zoned every single field, Martin is able to make connections between the data and what is happening on the ground.

“Last summer when it was hot and dry, the biomass imagery from satellites showed the parts of the field that were struggling, and they completely linked to the areas of the field that had low organic matter,” he says. “So now I’m looking at how I bring compost and organic material in, to lift those levels of the field up and build resilience into that part of the field, which will increase my yield.”

To find out more about applying the MSO concept to different farming systems, listen to the full episode of the podcast, or read the report.