This farm shows how a well-managed grass-fed cattle production system can help to restore biodiversity, sequester carbon, and create new habitats.
Puutsa Farm has been in Airi Külvet’s family for centuries. The earliest records date back to 1684 and reveal that, historically, grazing has been the primary activity on the land.
“Even during the USSR, when private property was taken away from farmers, the farmland was used to graze the collective farm’s heifers,” says Airi. “My grandfather was a herdsman, with a horse and dog.”
In 1995, shortly after finishing high school in Tallinn, Airi took over the farm from her grandfather. She has since renovated the farm buildings and increased the original farmland from 45 ha to 300 ha. She manages all the land using organic methods, with a small amount of cereals and oilseeds, as well as a herd of grazing organic beef cattle— a tradition she is proud to carry on.
“As the farm is situated in a very naturally diverse place, between a river and a stream, and is loaded with natural grasslands and wood pastures, beef cattle farming was my first choice of management,” says Airi.
Location: Jõgevamaa, Põltsamaa parish, Tõrve village, Estonia
Type of farm: Organic cattle farm (300 ha)
Main production: Beef, cereals and oilseeds
Key practices: Year-round plant cover, protecting soil structure from compaction, catch crops, enriching the soil with organic matter, buffer zones, water management, nutrient balance and balanced fertilization, correct timing and conditions for fertilizer application, careful manure application techniques, use of manure in plant production, precision farming, nutrient recycling.
Mitigating the environmental impact of beef production
“I believe that beef production is only justified if it brings environmental benefits,” says Airi.
As the founder of the Grassfed Cattle Quality Scheme, which includes about 100 other farmers, Airi’sambition is to introduce environmentally friendly beef cattle farming across Estonia.
“The beef cattle sector is in a dark shadow in global terms, as mass production is generally quite environmentally damaging,” says Airi. “However, the grass-fed cattle production system is environmentally friendly and, if managed correctly, grazing can help to restore biodiversity, sequester carbon, and create new habitats.”
“Manure can be both a polluter and biodiversity starter. It all depends on how it is handled.”
In order to prevent eutrophication, Airi and the farms she works with a focus on manure management, among other measures. Having participated in various collaborative projects with researchers, she has learned how to compost manure in a way that prevents nutrient loss.
“Manure can be both a polluter and biodiversity starter,” says Airi. “It all depends on how it is handled.”
Correct composting and manure management
On Puutsa Farm, all manure is collected and composted in manure stacks with an ample amount of straw. Wintering places are reinforced with concrete foundations to minimize run-off and keep animals in good conditions.
“Beef cattle farming is not a profitable activity in Estonian conditions, so you have to choose methods that are cheap but environmentally friendly,” says Airi. “Composting in heaps is a cheaper solution than concrete slurry pits and slatted farms and, with the current state of knowledge, it is also more environmentally friendly.”
The efficacy of Puutsa Farm’s manure stack methods were put to the test during the farm’s recent participation in a GreenAgri project where, over the course of two years, compostable manure stacks were enriched with effective microorganisms to make the process go faster. The composition, losses, and methods for optimal composting of manure residues were analyzed. Results showed that there is no nitrogen run-off when manure is correctly stacked and contains enough straw.
“This confirmed that I am on the right track with the methods I use on my farm and that I can recommend such practices to other farmers,” says Airi.
Biodiversity and climate action
The manure composted on Puutsa Farm is applied to temperate and short-term grasslands on the property to improve the soil biome. By doing so, Airi has managed to enrich formerly conventional farmlands and transform them into grasslands with a biodiverse mix of seeds. Rotational grazing is employed to further improve soil biodiversity, and decrease the risk of overgrazing.
“It’s interesting to see how quickly simple grazing methods can achieve positive results in terms of biodiversity,” says Airi. “At the same time, some of the fields that I rented from conventional farming are in such a poor state in terms of soil biota that more effort is needed.”
Overall, Airi’s efforts have yielded great results. In addition to curbing nutrient runoff on her farm, her methods have led to improved grassland yields, increased soil biota and improved animal health. The biodiverse vegetation on the farm creates habitats for birds and small mammals.
Additionally, the farm’s everyday management seeks to promote nature restoration. This includes efforts to maintain water bodies near the farmlands, and keep trees and natural elements on the landscape which benefit both biodiversity and the health of farm animals.
“It’s interesting to see how quickly simple grazing methods can achieve positive results in terms of biodiversity.”
Airi also keeps an eye on the farm’s fuel costs, planning out all the cattle feed, straw and manure deliveries to ensure there are no empty runs. And, to gain a bigger picture of the farm’s climate footprint, she participated in the CAP2ER programme and mapped it out. The results revealed that her farm sequesters 2.3 kg of carbon per live weight gain.
“A big part of this comes from the fact that we fatten the cattle on grass diets, and use a lot of permanent and natural grassland,” says Airi. “Equally important is that we have a low first calving age and a calving interval of fewer than 360 days, and fattened animals are sold off before 30 months of age.”
Airi gladly shares her learnings with the greater farming community. Every year, in cooperation with the Estonian Organic Farming Platform (Mahepõllumajanduse Koostöökogu), she organizes training days onher farm. Airi also invites students from the Estonian University of Life Sciences to the farm to learn.
“Hopefully, seeing the results will inspire other farmers to adopt more sustainable practices,” says Airi.
National winner of the Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award 2021
In recognition of the efforts made on Puutsa Farm to reduce nutrient runoff, Airi has been awarded the national Baltic Sea Farmer of the Year Award for Estonia.
“I’m glad to have been recognized!” she says. “Obviously, winning will allow for wider coverage of the practices on my farm through the press, and will initiate discussions on environmentally sustainable management.”
What advice do you have for other farmers?
“Environmental issues must be addressed! Sadly, a lot of the attitude you see from both big producers and small farmers is that somehow, in the name of food production (and addressing world hunger, etc.),environmental pollution is more acceptable. Yet, it is possible to produce food in an environmentally responsible way using simple practices that have been known for centuries. Making their own manure management more environmentally friendly should be a matter of course for all farms. It is often a question of lack of knowledge and attitude. Therefore, I think that organizing farmer-to-farmer information days and passing along information are very good ways of drawing attention to environmental issues. Hopefully, universities and vocational schools in Estonia will also modernize their agricultural education.”
“Since starting her work as a farmer, Airi Külvet has had a keen interest in finding solutions to environmental problems using sustainable farming practices, and increasing biodiversity on the lands she uses. Her devotion to a more eco-friendly and holistic understanding of agriculture is well complemented by her active participation in different scientific research and cooperative projects with many farms in Estonia and abroad. Scientific findings, innovative methods and best farming practices are used in everyday farm production as well as actively advocated via training of other farmers and students alike.”
Airi Külvet on the future of farming
Q: What do you consider to be the biggest challenges or threats facing farmers today and in the
A: Change is happening very fast. There is no time left to react to the environment and climate change in five or 10 years—you have to adapt your production methods now. Somehow, governments and farming organizations cannot get out of their comfort zones. The biggest danger, in my view, is that so much time and resources will be spent on denying climate change or looking for someone to blame, rather than putting solutions in place. Ultimately, it is the farmers who will suffer if agricultural support measures cannot be agreed upon in a form that is meaningful and helps to restore and save the environment.
Q: What are the greatest benefits/opportunities in farming today and in the future?
A: The direction of agricultural policy has changed a lot in the last year. In a short space of time, the preference for large-scale industrial production has disappeared, with different EU countries—and some more than others—emphasizing the importance of sustainable and environmentally friendly family farms. At the same time, it is very difficult to turn back the clock, as land resources have been bought up by big companies and the opportunities for setting up an environmentally friendly farm remain very difficult. However, the trend, and consumer preferences, are moving in the direction where a family farm managed in harmony with nature can ultimately be economically sustainable.
Q: What kind of support and encouragement do farmers in your region need to adopt and maintain more sustainable practices?
A: Knowledge is the main need. Sustainable and environmentally friendly farming is not taught in schools, nor is it taught by the agricultural input salesmen that farmers come into contact with. So far, however, only those farmers who speak foreign languages well and know how to find information on the web have the knowledge. Systematic learning and continuous examples of simply explained good practices are, therefore, what is needed.