Innovative solutions to dairy industry challenges

Future Farm at Duchy College, Stoke Climsland is a £4m platform exploring how innovation can help improve the sustainability of dairy farming. We find out more from Dr Robin Jackson, former Director of AgriTech Cornwall which co-ordinated the project.

Exploring how changes to feed and management of dairy cows can influence the environmental impact of milk production is central to the work at Future Farm. The research platform was set up to enable teaching and knowledge transfer, as well as extensive research into reducing the dairy industry’s carbon footprint.

The project was funded by the European Regional Development Fund, Cornwall Council, and the Council for the Isles of Scilly, and was part of the AgriTech Cornwall Project in partnership with the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth, Rothamsted Research, and the Cornwall Development Company.

Despite the enormous challenges posed by Covid, the build project was completed in 2020, explains Dr Robin Jackson, director of Rural Business School based at the college and former director of AgriTech Cornwall. “Despite lockdowns, we managed to build Future Farm.”

Carbon-cutting construction increases Future Farm sustainability

The novel building was the second of its kind to be constructed in the UK, says Robin. “With a lightweight tensile fabric roof it stands at 7.5m tall – significantly lower than a conventional construction with therefore less impact on the landscape. A traditional building would take tens of tons of roof panels, so this has a lighter carbon footprint too.”

Other advantages of its construction include that the cows are in natural daylight. Shutters on the sides of the building enable temperature and humidity to be controlled. Cows are fed by a Triolet feeding robot which enables the different groups to be fed little and often and for different rations to be formulated and managed precisely. The different management will be closely monitored to ensure healthy robust cows whilst keeping a close eye on milk yield and quality.

Since completion, the facility houses up to 220 dairy cows which can be managed and milked in three separate groups to compare differences in management and feeding and their influence on yield and performance.

“Boosting productivity and reducing emissions is an important part of achieving net zero. We believe that technology is a key component to achieving that. With the robot we have seen significant improvement in our use of forage and reduced feed costs without affecting milk yield or quality. We believe they are happier and healthier cows too.”

An important part of the research includes the ability for slurry to be handled separately for each of the groups too. “Slurry is a significant source of nutrients for crops but can be damaging if not used properly,” says Robin. “We are also interested in renewable energy and the potential to capture methane from our slurry stores which would help towards Net Zero as well.

A model dairy farm for the future

The farm’s work is particularly pertinent given the recent increases in fuel and fertiliser prices which will require a renewed focus on efficiency, he adds. “Farmers are having to make changes and pay enormous attention to detail and reduce risk while also improving efficiency.

“We hope the work at Future Farm will lead to better management of livestock for the benefit of those animals, the farming business and the environment.”

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Images: Ruth Wills


drones used for farming

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