Innovation in UK Farming: No Longer a ‘Top-Down’ Approach

ANALYSIS - Fine examples of the rewards that can be reaped when farmers and scientists work together to solve problems were put in the spotlight at a conference in the UK this week, reports Jackie Linden.
calendar icon 27 May 2015
clock icon 7 minute read

A conference held at Stoneleigh Park last week explored how farmers can find out about better ways of working and how links can be made between farming, research institutions and commercial companies to make progress in tackling today’s challenges in food production.

That need has never been more urgent with the human population forecast to reach eight billion by 2030 and a 50 per cent increase required in food production by that date – forecasts made by the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Dr John Beddington, in his 2009 report which coined the term ‘a perfect storm’ for the growing demand for food globally at a time of climate change.

Jointly organised by the EU’s Animal Task Force and Innovation for Agriculture in the UK and sponsored by Devenish Nutrition, the theme of the Innovative Farming conference was ‘How can farming contribute to innovative research?’

Sourcing Innovative Ideas

The head of Innovation for Agriculture (IFA), David Garner, said that the idea of researchers informing farmers about new developments became outdated when changes to UK government policy led research institutes to focus on basic research, leaving industry to fund applied research and disseminate the results.

He explained that the UK’s deteriorating position in farming output over the following years was partly down to the fragmentation of research efforts, and that his organisation was set up to reconnect farming and research and enabling these groups to learn from each other.

Mr Gardner cited the examples of declining soil fertility and blackgrass, a weed which has proved hard to control. Farmers are using their experience to try different arable practices to tackle these issues and passing on their experience to scientists, who are looking into the possible reasons why they worked – or did not – and how the successful approaches could be refined.

Another important function of the IFA is to ensure that other interested farmers can easily find out the results of this collaborative research through conferences and workshops as well as on-line.

Chairman of the conference, Jan Venneman, is vice-president of the Animal Task Force (ATF), which was set up in 2011 as a European public-private platform for researchers, farmers and industry to promote a sustainable and competitive animal production sector in the EU. Covering the whole animal production chain, it aims to foster knowledge and innovation throughout the region.

ATF’s theme for 2015 is ‘Precision Animal Farming’, he explained. This will cover a range of topics from feeding, health, housing and breeding to agricultural technology and data management.

Delivering Sustainable Agriculture

As a farmer and scientist as well as Director of Agriculture for Devenish Nutrition, Dr John Gilliland has all-round view of sustainability in agriculture.

He is aiming to make his farming system resilient to climate change so that it can contribute to future food security, stressing that this must start with profitability.

As a farmer, sustainability means delivering food and energy security, improving diversity and water quality and adapting to and mitigating climate change but also, profitability now and for the next generation, he said.

Dr Gilliland showed that the application of research can deliver benefits to the environment as well as improved productivity. Progress in genetic selection, for example, has greatly improved the performance of broilers and growing pigs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 26 and 20 per cent, respectively, since 1988.

Using an example from his company, DeviGuard is a nutritional answer to the disease, Post-weaning Multisystemic Wasting syndrome (PMWS), which improves pig growth after viral infection. Treated pigs are healthier, have higher slaughter weights, make more profit and produce lower GHG emissions per kilo of meat produced, he said.

Finally, he expressed his frustration at legislators, who sometimes penalise the innovators of new techniques by not allowing them to claim financial support offered to later adopters and whose rules may be overly prescriptive to the point of being contrary to their original aims.

Importance of Communication

In his comments on future challenges, Dr Gilliland highlighted the vital importance of communication in the transfer of knowledge, stressing that the message needs to be clear and delivered to the right target audience in the right way.

This view was confirmed by most of the other speakers. One, however, offered a different view, however.

Richard Matson of Twemlows Stud Farm invested £100,000 of his own money in a project with the University of Liverpool to develop new techniques to overcome fertility problems in horses. Understandably, he said he does not wish to disseminate the results to his competitors.

Very positive views of the value of true co-operation between farming and science on equal terms were given other speakers at the Innovative Farming Conference.

Learning from each other in the Danish pig sector

The success of the Danish pig industry can be at least partly attributed to the research generated by the Danish Pig Research Centre, said Asger Kjaer Nielsen, Quality Manager at the Danish Agriculture and Food Council.

Financed by a levy on all pigs produced in Denmark and overseen by a Board of Directors, who are all pig farmers, the Centre is responsible for R&D programmes and for transferring the knowledge it generates to farm level.

Sustainable production is one of the key interests and so animal welfare and environmental projects are at the heart of the research programme.

Ideas come from the Pig Research Centre and from farmers and are channelled through advisers at the national advisory service (DLBR), veterinary practices and the supply industry, while the results take the reverse route.

Research is carried out at the Centre, Aarhus University and the 200 or so participating commercial pig farms and the two-way communication means that farmers and researchers learn a lot from each other, Mr Nielsen stressed.

Vets play a key role

Last but not least, Sophie Throup explained how her organisation, RAFT Solutions, was set up in 2010 by Bishopton Veterinary Group.

RAFT aimed to offer an interesting future for livestock vets, act as a hub for conversations on sustainability and developments to benefit food production and to exchange ideas between farmers and researchers nationwide.

The group has successfully set up links with Moredun Scientific and become involved with several projects through the Technology Strategy Board, in areas as diverse as a liver fluke assay, measuring bull semen quality, rapid testing of pathogens, green energy in pig farming and precision dairy cow management.

Vets are in an excellent position to make links between farming and research as they visit farms regularly and so are aware of the problem issues there, as well as having access to the scientific community, she said.

This was a good example of one of the a key message of this Innovative Farming conference – the need for links to be made between agriculture and research to help identify practical and workable solutions to today’s and future challenges.

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