Deep in the scenic Welsh Borders lies Brongain Farm, an 800-acre business spanning over three generations of the Pickstock family: father John, his son Greg and his grandson Rowan.
John has spent 60 years working in the beef industry and that “knowledge and experience was handed down to us as a family,” explains Greg Pickstock. “It keeps the family very close.”
Today, they are among the 23,000 British and Irish farmers from which McDonald’s sources its quality ingredients. Pickstock describes the relationship with the chain as “collaborative”. Together, they have gone from strength to strength, producing quality beef.
Quality is key when it comes to the meat McDonald’s sources for its hamburgers, which are made from 100 per cent British and Irish beef, using only forequarter and flank. But not only has the symbiotic relationship helped the farm ensure high standards, it has also helped the Pickstock family on their journey to being more sustainable farmers.
Challenges to agriculture and farming have rapidly evolved in recent years. Animal welfare and sustainability are of increasing importance for farmers across the country as agriculture remains the fifth-highest sector for greenhouse gas emissions, producing 11 per cent of the UK’s total emissions in 2020. But, working with McDonald’s, the farm has been at the forefront of this sustainability drive.
“As a farming family, I realise that we have a part to play,” Pickstock says, adding that the agricultural sector has a responsibility to work towards a more sustainable future.
Since McDonald’s started working with Brongain Farm, the food chain has helped the family business become a hub of sustainable best practice, supporting the family with the tools and resources to trial new, exciting innovations around animal nutrition and carbon counting. This is helping the farm in its efforts to achieve net zero by 2030, taking an important industry-leading role. Brongain Farm has reduced its carbon emissions by 31 per cent in two years, showing real progress. The National Farmers’ Union’s goal is to achieve net zero in England and Wales by 2040, which is in line with McDonald’s own targets across the UK business, as part of its Plan for Change, the business’s sustainability plan.
The farm is also part of McDonald’s Sustainable Beef Network, through which the company works with farmers to share best practice with their peers in the sector, in order to help foster collective progress.
How do farms, like Brongain Farm, transition to net zero? Pickstock explains that the partnership with McDonald’s focuses on two key things. First, on reducing carbon emissions of cattle by looking at efficiency, breeding and nutrition. And second, by storing as much carbon as possible in the soil, trees and hedgerows.
This has meant a large amount of data-gathering and analysing upfront. “We worked with experts from the start to monitor the health of the cattle, their diet, we regularly weigh them and record their daily live weight gain,” Pickstock explains. The family used this data to calculate their carbon footprint, working alongside experts to map the farm’s path to net zero. Once this was complete, McDonald’s helped the farm source an expert group of animal nutritionists and consultants who came together to analyse the data and set the targets, timelines and strategy for its carbon capture project.
Pickstock has also been looking at how the farm can make beef production more efficient and sustainable through better breeding. The farm does this by working with a leading breeding company to select the best bulls for the breeding process. The team then provides early-stage life care for the calves, focusing on disease prevention and welfare. As they grow, the animals spend as much time grazing as possible.
Alongside their focus on carbon, Brongain Farm implements regenerative principles including keeping the soil covered to protect it from sun burning or frost and keeping living roots in the soil, which provides food for creatures living underground. The farm also reduces soil disturbance, grows a diverse range of grass plants because soil thrives on variety, and uses cattle for grazing land, which is highly beneficial for the soil.
McDonald’s is helping Brongain Farm look to the future, too. Plans to use the farm as a research hub to evaluate the success of different technologies, such as renewable energy or organic fertiliser composting, are ongoing.
As well as guidance and resources, McDonald’s has provided a means of sharing the successes and learnings at Brongain Farm with farmers across the country. “Having [McDonald’s’] support has given us tools [to measure and validate our carbon footprint], and [these systems can be put] in place for other farmers to use,” Pickstock says. Once he has trialled a technology and analysed its success, McDonald’s helps to facilitate the sharing of this information across the agricultural sector, through partnerships with other farmers, as well as national knowledge-sharing conventions and roundtables.
As Pickstock explains, it is this collaboration that is so vital for ensuring quality meat for the long term, and for the transition to net zero. In fact, it enables him to share best practice with his peers: “Once [others in the farming community] trust and see what we are doing, they too will be able to come on the journey with us with the confidence that it really works.”