Turning research into innovation at farm level
The numerous challenges faced by agriculture – particularly improving its carbon footprint – means innovation is more important than ever, says Dr Mark Young, Head of Innovation at the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL).
The UK agricultural industry was considered world leading 30 to 40 years ago, but that status has slipped, says Dr Mark Young. “The government has been investing in agricultural research, but farming hadn’t changed very much so the concept of agri-tech organisations like ours was to focus on research that leads from innovation through to change at farm level.
“If innovation is not picked up and used, you haven't completed the job,” he continues. This may be because research findings are not translated into a new definition of best practice, or because it is not reaching farmer networks. “We need to find the best way for farmers to pick up new ideas, test them and use them if they are good.”
The flow of information should not just be in a one direction, but as an interaction between farmers and experts, Mark says. “At the moment there is a big divide between research and application. Scientists and farmers are not talking the same language, which is part of the problem.
“Farmers learn best from each other, talking about how they do things and having an expert on hand to answer questions. It’s important to ask how farmers want the information. We see CIEL’s role in this as providing an independent view on science and evidence. We don’t have a vested interest in any particular technology and are focused on outcomes.”
One major area requiring innovation is the pressing need to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint. “The IPC recommendation is for agriculture is a 64% reduction from the base year. Current knowledge can only deliver half that for livestock without a reduction in numbers.”
“Everyone can improve efficiencies through aspects such as diet – ensuring it is right for what the animal needs. For example, if an animal needs high protein for growth, don’t feed excess energy.” This efficiency drive also includes factors such as age at first calving and longevity of dairy animals or boosting growth rates of meat production animals.
Novel or alternative feeds
“With ruminants, the big carbon costs are methane and nitrous oxide so it's about digestion being as efficient as possible. Novel and alternative feeds are needed to reduce the amount of methane produced. With pigs and poultry, the carbon footprint is more about how much it costs to grow the feed. A critical area here is the protein used as we seek to reduce use of ‘high footprint’ soya.”
“New technology is allowing management of individual animals and creation of more automated systems from richer data sets. For example, with robotic milking the computer knows how much milk each cow is producing and can feed a precision supplement.” Other examples of this include pedometers which track a cow’s activity level to give an early indication of illness, or cameras used to monitor body condition score and spot early signs of lameness. “Good animal health is a key part of making efficient use of feed. We know health has a cost to animals through higher feed requirement or poorer performance, but we need to quantify this better. Effectively, we need to connect health and production research.”
Reduced nitrogen fertiliser use
“Producing nitrogen-based fertiliser requires high amounts of energy and contributes to carbon emissions,” says Dr Young. It is therefore essential that better production and application methods are found, but a focus is also needed on enhanced soil health and fertility management by using manures and the development of appropriate grass species for livestock.
Making better use of manure
“Instead of manure being a waste product, we need to find ways to store and treat it and make the best use of it as fertiliser.” Current work by the University of Leeds is investigating the use of plasma in treating pig manure to capture ammonia as ammonium nitrate, which can be applied to fields. Other novel approaches to the use of manure include collecting methane from slurry pits and using it as fuel in adapted vehicles.
It’s important to consider the carbon sequestration (storage) capabilities of not just the soil, but also other elements of the landscape such as trees and hedgerows. There are several tools for calculating a farm’s carbon footprint. “Each has its strengths and all of them could be better,” Mark says. “None calculate the whole gamut of carbon transactions, so farmers are saying they are use three different tools and end up with three different answers. Current advice is to work with just one tool. These tools are evolving as we gain more knowledge about emissions and carbon cycling.”
The industry clearly has some way to go to achieve the IPC’s 64% reduction target, concludes Dr Young. “We believe we can deliver 24 of these percentage points with the current technology available if there is high uptake, but it isn’t happening yet. So, we need a greater uptake of the known technology, coupled with new innovations, to take us further.”
About Dr Young
Dr Mark Young is a former senior geneticist and scientist at Beef & Lamb New Zealand with wide-ranging knowledge and experience of the ruminant sector. Since joining CIEL as Head of Innovation in 2016, his role has included facilitating use of CIEL-supported research capability and developing and delivering its research programme. Mark also designs member events for knowledge exchange and discussion and to identify opportunities for innovation.
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