Tesco and WWF have launched a trial to offer UK dairy farmers subsidies that support growing feed more sustainably for their livestock.

The scheme was created to help reduce the environmental impact of the average shopping basket and it has given 15 farmers in Tesco’s Sustainable Dairy Group (TSDG) an 80 per cent seed subsidy to plant herbal leys.

This is a soil enriching grass mix of plants, legumes and herbs which is used as feed for dairy cows.

Seed mix benefits

The seed mix has a few benefits over conventional grass fields including:

Increase on-farm biodiversity: different plant species attract a range of insects and pollinators, birds and other wildlife.

Reduce carbon footprint: some of the legumes take in nitrogen so do not need as much artificial nitrogen fertiliser to grow. Over time, they also sequester more carbon in the soil than conventional ryegrasses.

Improve soil health: different plant species have varied and deeper rooting structures than conventional ryegrasses. This in turn increases resilience in the face of adverse weather conditions like drought.

Improved water quality: improved root structures minimise soil erosion and fertiliser run-off.

Improve animal health: different plant species provide nutritious food for the animals and can even increase immunity from some diseases.

Cows are responsible for 2 per cent of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions so finding a way to reduce the carbon emissions related to dairy farming and increasing biodiversity at the same time could reduce their overall environmental impact.

The herbal leys trial is just one part of the measures that Tesco is introducing. The idea is to emphasise the importance of cutting carbon emissions and improving biodiversity on farms.  

Tesco dairy farmers have worked at decreasing their carbon emissions and since 2016 they have fallen by 6.5%.

The retailer now aims to reach its new emissions reduction target which aims to help TSDG farmers reduce their emissions by another 10% by 2025.

Each TSDG farm will also be putting plans in place to improve soil quality, water usage and biodiversity.

One of the first to take up the trial are farmers Amie and Chris Lovatt, who run a farm near Macclesfield in Cheshire. 

Amie Lovatt said: “We jumped at the chance to be included in the trial as it’s important that we all have to find the balance between producing affordable and healthy food and looking after the environment we live in.   

“We believe that herbal leys could provide a perfect answer to that as not only will they improve soil health and structure thanks to their deep roots but are also less reliant on artificial fertilisers.”

Tesco Agriculture Manager, Tom Atkins, said: “We’re immensely proud of the work our dairy farmers do and the great quality milk they provide to our customers.

“We want to ensure we’re doing all we can to continue to support our farmers and, in this critical decade for climate and nature, help make our dairy farms some of the most sustainable in the world.

“We will continue to work with our farmers to both reduce carbon emissions and continue to increase the amount of biodiversity on farm. We will also be working together on more innovative initiatives like our herbal leys project, which should bring huge benefits in terms of soil health and biodiversity.”

A total of 15 farms are in on the project so far and if it is successful, there may be an opportunity for more TSDG farmers to join Tesco and WWF in looking to subsidise seed costs for the next two years.

WWF Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, Callum Weir, said: “UK farmers have an important role to play in bringing back nature to our landscape via sustainable farming practices.

“Nature-based solutions such as herbal leys can play a role in tackling climate change and help support WWF and Tesco’s shared goal of halving the environmental impact of the average shopping basket.”