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Leading the way: A closer look at new £6m UK dairy research centre

The University of Nottingham’s new £6 million dairy research centre is expected to quickly establish itself as a key facility for research into the cattle health, nutrition and welfare in high yielding dairy units.

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Leading the way: A closer look at new £6m UK dairy research centre

The dairy research centre at the University of Nottingham is expected to further cement Nottingham’s reputation as a world-leading dairy research facility.


It is already nominated as the lead unit for research into intensive dairy farming in the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock (CIEL).


CIEL acts as a gateway between academia and business, bringing together 12 leading livestock research centres across the UK and some 30 commercial organisations from across the farming and food industries.


It is one of the Government’s four Agri-Tech Centres, which are designed to bring fresh impetus to the country’s innovation in agriculture and food research.


The others are Crop Health and Protection, the Agri-EPI Centre (engineering and precision farming) and Agrimetrics (data).


CIEL chief executive Lyndsay Chapman says the new networks came into being in response to a clear need.


“The Government recognised there has been insufficient investment in agricultural research for many years. We aim to bring fresh focus and co-ordinate the efforts between the different member centres and the industry itself.


“The longer term aim is to ensure we develop an industry with the efficiency and resilience to develop a sustainable and competitive agri food industry.”


She believes it also means UK researchers will get the facilities they deserve and have not had for some time.


“It is important for the nation that we are a global leader in food production. We want to do the best research in the UK because this benefits our industry the most.


“Our scientists are recognised as world-leading in many fields, but they have not always had world-class facilities in which to work.

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“If you combine all our member universities, CIEL probably represents the biggest alliance of livestock scientists in the EU and this is the biggest investment in facilities for a whole generation”.


CIEL has 12 academic members and more than 30 commercial ones, some of them traditional competitors.


In the same way it brings researchers together for the common good, she expects it to bring companies together too.


“We can bring potentially competitive partners together around a table and co-ordinate research to address industry challenges at that important pre-competitive stage.


“Sometimes we can broker relationships which businesses might not be able to do themselves because they are competitors.”


And the door is open to new companies to approach the organisation with their ideas.


These might be considered for resourcing and hosting, or lead to an introduction to other partners with whom they could be developed.


“The member universities involved can effectively share expertise. If any one of them wants to run a project but does not have the appropriate expertise or available facilities, they can tap into the knowledge and facilities of other institutions.”


Having multiple institutions in the group enables them to specialise in research in ‘in demand’ areas.


Mrs Chapman explains: “While Nottingham takes the lead on high-yielding dairy production, AFBI Belfast leads the work on extensive dairy systems with complementary expertise at several other partner institutions.”

Both universities work closely with farmers in selecting and conducting research.


The Nottingham unit currently houses a 240-animal closed herd, which will rise to 360 cows to increase the number of projects which can be completed, and ensure cows have the appropriate rest periods between trials.


All projects proposed for the unit have to meet the rules enforced by the Home Office for experiments involving animals, and additionally be approved by a committee which assesses them for relevance and value.


Prof Phil Garnsworthy, head of the animal sciences division at the University of Nottingham, says:

“We have to consider the scientific value of the proposed project, as well as considering our reputation and ethics before we consider any trial work. We must justify what we are doing.”


One issue he is keen to research is cow longevity.


“A lot of cows are wasted due to becoming infertile after two or three lactations. This reduces feed efficiency and we will be looking at ‘whole farm’ performance.”


Results from these trials are communicated in a variety of ways by the University and its other partners via farmer meetings, newsletters, technical bulletins, the press and websites.


The unit’s key aim is to conduct research relevant to operators of larger, high-yielding dairy units, says associate professor Dr Chris Hudson.


“High input/output herds will be an important part of the UK dairy scene for the foreseeable future.


“An increasing number of people are adopting systems in which cows are housed for most of the year and aiming for high yields, while many others are doing the reverse and using low input/output systems.


“Our role here is to see what we can add to the evidence available on the health, welfare, productivity and life experience for the cow.


“We need to make life as comfortable as possible for the cows, as well as being economically efficient for the farmer.”


AFBI Belfast works closely with farmers, says Mrs Chapman, and uses them as a key information source.


“They are effectively researching precision grassland. Part of this effort is putting a range of monitoring and measuring equipment on local farms, with both the farmers and researchers able to access the resulting data.


“While the University analyses this data, the farmers also share and discuss what they have found among themselves via a WhatsApp group.”


Avoiding duplication is a key part of CIEL’s role, she adds.


“We need to avoid investing in facilities which duplicate those elsewhere, so the lead centres cooperate closely with other research centres outside the group as well as within it.”


Projects can be funded commercially, by grants, or a combination of both, and have to go through the normal protocols before being accepted, which includes passing the Home Office’s rules for experiments involving animals.

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