Many of our farmer members will remember when mixed farming was routinely practiced across the region, but in recent times herds and flocks have not been economically viable for a farm business. However the role of livestock is being revalued to be seen as part of a wider ‘agro-ecology’ to improve soil fertility and weed control. This approach could be a potential model for so-called sustainable intensification.
As the role of livestock within a farming system is re-evaluated, so too are we extending the scope of Agri-Tech East beyond its initial crop and plant-based focus.
The role of livestock innovations in farming systems should not be underestimated – already innovations such as smart ear-tags, rumen-based sensors and innovative disease diagnostic systems are entering the market.
Thinking more about the role of livestock speaks closely to our agenda to help advance new technologies for the industry. We are seeing rapid advances in “stock-tech” innovations, ranging from GROW business plan finalist Smartbell (wellness, lameness and oestrus detection), to PBD Biotech, Start-Up Showcase speaker at REAP 2016 with innovative technologies for TB testing.
While the east of England has not traditionally been known for its livestock, DEFRA’s most recent data reveal it is home to 28% of England’s pigs and 22 % of its poultry. And there are examples of leading excellence, including a dairy herd in Norfolk managed by robotic milkers, run by Emily Norton, speaker at our Young Innovators Forum Agri-Science 2017 conference. Another dairy herd in Norfolk produces starting material for the famous Mrs Temple’s cheeses, with the cattle muck feeding an anaerobic digester which then returns nutrients to the soil.
But do the economics stack up? Livestock farming is challenging, highly regulated and with notoriously low margins, and the threat of imports competing with UK-grown product.
To answer that question, a number of research projects are underway looking at the financial benefits of relationships between grazing animals and soil improvements, be able to put a financial value on the benefits to arable land from grazing stock and to establish the viability of keeping animals just for grazing.
Of course many animals are also housed indoors, with the potential for innovations to help with feed and environmental management, data analysis, automated weighing and welfare support. We will be using our links with the knowledge and technology communities to explore how their use of analytics and logistics can support the agri-tech sector.
Feeding the soil
Gary Zimmer, who gave the keynote speech at our REAP 2016 conference, extolled the virtues of muck.
The effective use of organic manures supports biologically-active soil ecosystems. Soil organisms will use the nutrients in whatever form they are applied (mineral or organic) but they also need an energy source to respire and reproduce.
With mineral fertilisers, soil organisms will break down existing soil organic matter, contributing to the decline in soil organic matter levels associated with intensive cropping systems. However, with organic manures, nutrients are applied to the soil together with organic matter, providing a source of energy (from the carbon compounds) for the soil ecosystem that is not available when mineral fertilisers are used.
It is not just the manure, the use of leys for feeding livestock provides a break in the rotation to allow control of weeds. The addition of clover and other herbs in the ley add nutrients to the soil, further improving its microbial health and structure.
Calculating the value
Could we envisage a relationship between livestock and arable production where the different parties both understand the absolute financial value they bring to the table?
This also speaks to our latest thinking around Natural Capital, which we’ll be talking about in our January Pollinator. Exciting times – watch this space!