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FG 175: Rising to the challenge of feeding more with less

As domestic and world populations have boomed in the years since 1844, the need to grow more food from less land has been keenly felt.

 

Alice Dyer assesses how British agriculture has stepped up to the plate.

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FG 175: Rising to the challenge of feeding more with less

W hen Farmers Guardian first opened its pages in 1844 as the Preston Guardian, the population in Britain as we know it was just 18 million.

 

Over the next 175 years, agriculture would need to rise to the challenge of feeding a population that has grown by more than 270 per cent, with just 20 per cent more farmland.

 

Automation, nutrition, genomics and chemistry have driven the industry forward, facing many challenges along the way, some not so unfamiliar to today’s farmer.

 

Here is how the different sectors have adapted...

 

DAIRY

 

NINETEENTH century milk yields were some 1,350 litres per cow per year, compared to the 7,500 litres seen today.

 

To improve productivity, the first automated milking machine considered fit for purpose was developed in 1889. Prior to this, tubes made from wood or feather quills were inserted into the teats of cows to force open the sphincter muscle.

 

This led to diseased and injured udders which could not hold milk.

 

It was during this era that black and white cattle, now known as the Holstein, were first introduced to the UK.

 

The 1940s saw a major step for dairying – two artificial insemination research centres were established at Cambridge and Reading.

 

Genetic improvement has since been responsible for most of the increases in milk, fat and protein yields seen today.

 

 

ARABLE

 

IN the late 19th century, developments in transport saw cheap grain start to arrive from the US after trade tariffs were removed. Grain prices slumped leading to the ’Great Depression’ of British agriculture.

 

By 1930, the UK was 30 per cent self-sufficient in home-grown crops, but during World War II the total arable area increased by 50 per cent, going from the smallest area on record to the largest in just five years.

 

The height of the green revolution in the 1960s meant new crop varieties and better management practices, including use of fertilisers, greatly increased crop yields around the world.

 

Wheat yields jumped by one tonne per hectare in a decade, averaging 3.93t/ha. Potato and barley yields reached 25.4t/ha and 3.62t/ha, respectively. Chemistry to aid crop production surged with the introduction of glyphosate in 1974 and triazole fungicides in 1976, which established the first use of routine fungicide programmes.

 

The most substantial development for the arable sector was the first resistant wheat varieties, which were much higher yielding than anything that had been seen before.

 

Geneticist Dr Norman Borlaug, who introduced the first semi-dwarf variety, was awarded a Nobel Prize and named as the man who saved more human lives than any other.

Dr Norman Borlaug
Dr Norman Borlaug

SHEEP

 

DURING the 19th century, sheep became essentially a meat animal following Robert Bakewell’s theory of crossbreeding.

 

His new breed, the Dishley Leicester, an ancestor of the Border Leicester, a cross between the old Lincolnshire breed and a Leicestershire breed, was ready for market in two years, compared to up to four years for other breeds.

 

Concentration on carcase quality grew and the production of fine wool fell.

 

During this time there were more than 30 British breeds, with continental breeds not being introduced until the late 20th century.

 

Breeds were much lower performing, as early records suggest the Romney weighed about 35kg with a 2kg fleece.

 

An emphasis on crop production saw flock numbers fall during the world wars, but when the Common Agricultural Policy for sheepmeat was introduced, sheep numbers almost doubled to the highest level on record at 44.5 million in 1992.

 

BEEF

 

DURING the ‘Great Depression’ many arable farmers turned to beef and dairy production, which promised higher returns despite competition from Argentinian imports.

 

During the late 1800s the Aberdeen-Angus, the UK’s most popular native breed, was much the same size as it is today.

 

Despite its popularity, during the 1960s the breed was almost wiped out after smaller cattle suited to shipping container fridge size, were bred for the South American market.

 

When this trend ended, demand was low because the Aberdeen-Angus did not suit the higher carcase weights favoured in the UK.

 

In 1959, the first continental beef genetics arrived in Britain, with Charolais semen smuggled in a thermos flask.

 

The BSE crisis in the late 1980s led to a public of for beef developing.

 

Provocatively named ‘mad cow disease’, beef consumption fell by a third and 4.4 million cattle were slaughtered to try and stop the disease.

 

In the last year, £2.2 billion was spent on beef by the British consumer, according to AHDB.

POULTRY

 

THE discovery of vitamin D in the early 1900s led to a small revolution in poultry keeping, which was mostly small scale, with egg production averaging 80-150 eggs per bird per year.

 

When World War II began, about 30 per cent of all eggs were imported from countries as far away as Australia, China and Russia.

 

Rations held back the poultry industry, because feed was not readily available, and it was not until the 1950s that commercial poultry production began to take off.

 

Developments including the introduction of broilers to the UK, indoor units with lighting and better understanding of poultry nutrition all contributed to a boom in meat and egg production.

 

By 1958, layers produced about 240 eggs a year, and broilers would reach a slaughter weight of 1.9kg in 70 days.

 

In 1988, the egg industry slumped as a result of the salmonella food scare, but last year egg sales hit a 40-year high, with 13.2 billion eggs being consumed.

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