As the agricultural industry braces itself for the country’s exit from the European Union, the 2017 Nuffield scholars revealed how systems in countries overseas could lead the way to future innovation in the UK.
With many having already implemented their findings into their home businesses, stories from all over the globe have helped inspire their next steps in the industry.
Lauren Dean reports from the annual conference in Glasgow...
IT was not cattle and sheep which were in the wrong, but the systems in place to manage them.
That was the joint message from three Nuffield 2017 scholars on the importance of soil health to manage livestock produced on pasture-based systems.
After being told to build up organic matter and boost diversity at his home farm in Dunkeld, Perthshire, Alex Brewster toured South America, Uruguay and New Zealand where he found profitable livestock platforms were improved by enhancing soil biology.
Speaking about his meeting with ‘Irishman John’ in Uruguay, he said: “Dairy farmers love rye-grass. But when we got there we realised it was more than just rye-grass, it was chicories and plantains, vetches and herbs.
“Then in New Zealand the farmer’s grass was green and rich and buzzing, when all around was dry and barren and brown.
His passion was biology to feed the living organisms in the soil – to feed the biota.”
Mr Brewster, who won the John Stewart shield for his passionate performance, said with each example he saw, energy transfer was key. There were mutualistic relationships being formed by different species for a common goal.
“There are herbivores eating and ripping and trampling, and all of this biology rises up from the land and creates this cycle, pulling nutrients back down,” Mr Brewster said.
“And the worms come back up.
“In the last four years we have been making decent headway with the fencing of waterways and tightening up stocking densities, but we have also created rest.
“And it is this rest which allows the plant to drop the root systems, pulling energy and feeding this biology.”
The importance of soil rest was also highlighted by Richard Tudor, Welshpool, Powys, who purposefully travelled from his farm to countries with different climates. To make the best of the soil, the farmers he spoke to ‘grazed a third, left a third and trampled a third’.
He said: “Only graze the soil once and allow a sufficient rest period for recovery. We need to build back into the soil by providing the soil biology with the optimum conditions to thrive.
“To do this we need to renew focus on lime. Compaction deserves serious consideration; time factoring is key – short grazing periods, long rest periods; species diversity must be encouraged on grassland farms and soil analyses must become compulsory and far more comprehensive.”
Cotswolds farmer Geraint Powell, who looked at sustainable grazing strategies, said he found farmers who shifted their focus to a profit-orientated system helped produce an optimum.
They were never outperforming the environment but instead always testing their decisionmaking against the context of their future natural resource base.
He told delegates: “They were all profitable and creative and the resilience and success they had built in the livestock systems was only made possible by educating themselves on the complex relationship between the sun, the soil, the plant and the animal.
“Plant size, leaf area, root mass and how much grass you leave behind are all incredibly important factors when formulating a grazing system which allows your soil to function properly.”
WORK smarter, not harder, was the advice of Nuffield scholar Hugh Sheddon, York, as he set out on his global venture to discover how to integrate precision livestock farming [PLF] into the UK pig sector.
Telling of his findings on how to enhance profitability and sustainability, Mr Sheddon warned delegates not to ‘believe all the hype’ when it came to farm technology.
Instead, farmers must focus on what was happening on-farm in real-time and use the data to ‘prevent, rather than cure’.
“It is easy to be wowed by big shiny kit, but all that glitters is not gold,” Mr Sheddon said.
“Technology will not turn a bad farmer into a good farmer. It can point you in the right direction but ultimately it is up to the individual to act.”
But with good information you can make good decisions, and as the British consumer becomes more demanding, PLF could be the way to target specific markets by enabling a product which is ‘more speciality and less commodity’.
He referred to a trial in Scotland where farmers were using a system to monitor cases of tail biting among pigs, which was proven to predict an outbreak 10-14 days before the human eye could detect it.
This type of PLF would give farmers more tools to act on and enhance the welfare of the pig by allowing their natural early warning signs to be monitored and understood, helping to hit the contract specification more consistently and therefore enhancing profitability.
He said: “I started to think whether it would be possible to benchmark the health and welfare of the pig, and whether we could take something which is currently subjective and make it objective.
“We could use signs, evidence and technology to score health and welfare. What if we could prove our sustainable credentials using real numbers and facts rather than hearsay, perception and gut feel?”
Sarah Hughes, Denbighshire, North Wales, echoed Mr Sheddon’s initial sentiments as she explored the world of vertical farming – suggesting the system was overrated.
One hectare of crop could be grown in a 100sq.m tall growing area using zero soil and a carefully controlled mix of LED lighting, water and nutrients.
Mrs Hughes said: “My travels showed me you can grow anything, anywhere and at any time. But was it economical to do so?”
A grower in China, she said, ‘freely admitted that growing in this system was not as easy as advertised and there was a lot of trial and error to get it running smoothly’.
And while there was on average a 95 per cent saving on water, the controlled environment systems needed high energy levels for lighting, heat and ventilation.
“In many countries labour costs are the highest, after energy, in the business,” she added. “The environmental credentials do not always stand up to scrutiny either.”
SECURING farmers’ resilience and protecting mental health should be a key focus, Rural Support chief executive Jude McCann, Co. Derry, Northern Ireland, told the conference.
He said resilience was ‘simply the ability to cope with what life throws at us and the ability to bounce forward from it’.
He added there was a need for greater recognition of emotional and social resilience, instead of the conventional farm business resilience, based on profits and environmental resilience.
Speaking about a dairy farmer named Andre from Switzerland, Mr McCann said: “He stood out to me because he believes very much in a life-farm balance. Not a work-life balance – he thinks life has to come first.
“For Andre, being off-farm provides a shift in gear, allowing him time to switch off and recharge.”
The importance of social events also help boost resilience, with Andre hosting regular wine tasting events to market his produce to people who are prepared to pay a premium because they know him, trust him and value the quality of his produce.
In New Zealand, farmers are assisted by online initiative Farmstrong, which helped members take time out from the farm and talk about difficult issues.
They are careful in the choice of language they use to better engage with other farmers, Mr McCann said.
“Farmers’ resilience is everyone’s business,” he said.
“And it is not just about personal resilience but about the farm household and the community.
“Challenges faced by farmers can no longer be addressed solely by focusing on business issues.”