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    Environmental Sustainability farm group - Productivity

    The goal is to reach net-zero by 2030 for Future Farm, the first ES conference in 2022 set to highlight what was required of each ES group to achieve this goal. For the ES farm Productivity group, the suggested targets were given:

    • Enhanced animal breeding
    • Use of in feed additives to reduced greenhouse gas production
    • Reduction of fossil-based inputs
    • Improve usage efficiencies
    • Precision feeding of plants and animals
    • Improve tillage and cropping activities
    • Novel proteins and waste feeding

    It was highlighted that the logical way to achieve these targets would be to gather a group of dedicated animal academics and Future Farm team members who are interested in improving productivity in their own sectors. Then split them into sub-groups to focus solely and independently on every aspect of productivity in Future Farm, these sub-groups are:

    • Beef
    • Dairy
    • Youngstock
    • Grass and Forage
    • Pigs
    • Poultry
    • Sheep

    Beef

    The beef sub-group is focussing on how to give beef a good name in the media world. There have been many articles and documentaries highlighting why we should remove beef from our diet due to the greenhouse gas emissions produced from beef cows.

    Picture: Beef calves at the pen gate 

    The HAU beef production system greenhouse gas emissions are already lower than the average benchmarked beef system from a dairy herd in the UK, and significantly lower than the average benchmarked beef system from a beef herd in the UK. Even though we are lower than the average, how can we reduce further? Feed beef cow’s alternative to soy? Low protein diets? Use of legumes? Improved forage quality?

    Picture: A graph representing the predicted greenhouse gas emissions produced from HAU beef system compared to benchmarked farm greenhouse gas emissions (Adapted from Poore and Nemecek, 2018)

    Next steps...

    For Future Farm, we will transform our beef system to outdoor beef production. Making the shift to Aberdeen Angus cross dairy steers and heifers, they will still enter the system at 100 to 160kg liveweight and finish at 500 to 600kg liveweight. But with lower inputs due to improved forage quality, the goal is to maintain comparative performance to an intensive system, whilst reducing the greenhouse gas emissions produced and enhancing soil carbon sequestration.

    Dairy

    An ongoing project includes automated foot bathing to improve welfare and performance of dairy cows at HAU. It is widely known that there is a widespread issue of lameness in the dairy industry, causing pain and welfare implications, also affecting the performance of the cows in terms of reduced milk yield, reproductive performance and increased culling rates. The practice of foot bathing is a regular occurrence on dairy farms but most footbaths are designed to accommodate a maximum of 200 cow passes. When cows pass through, the concentration of the solution and topical application is reduced at each pass due to organic matter contamination.

    The project has enabled the installation of an automatic footbath (product name: iBath) in the main dairy. The footbath counts the number of cow passes and automatically empties and refills with iBath solution (a concentrate product containing hoof biocides and hoof treatment products). Throughout the project, assessments would be conducted to monitor cow lameness using mobility scoring and foot lesion incidence will be used to estimate reductions in greenhouse gas emission intensity.

    Picture: iBath footbath set up in the Future Farm dairy unit

     

    In addition to the project stated above, the other improvements made over the last 12 months include:

    • Technology to improve feed efficiencies
    • Technology to improve animal health status
    • Technology to improve staff work efficiencies and making tasks more ‘work friendly’
    • Technology to implement labour saving devices and making the farm more accessible to the wider university
    • Technology to reduce the carbon output for the ruminant section, working alongside the other sectors of the farm
    • Close working relationship with the crops and farm operations team


    Improving feed efficiency

    Feed efficiency has been improved by removing feed yokes, which has increased the capacity of cows and the feed spaces across all sheds, the cows are now standing more naturally at the feed fence improving the leg and foot angle development in younger cows.

    Picture: Dairy cows feeding at the feed face with removed yokes

     

    Improving animal health

    New cubicle mattresses have been a requirement for the animals as more than 150 cow cubicles were ripped or missing, it was impossible to keep the lying areas clean and comfortable for the cows. It has been a phenomenal success as every cubicle is now in use and udder health has improved.

    The introduction and use of cow manager tags have allowed for multi-access across the farm and advisors to monitor cow fertility, health and nutrition. Cow manager provides health alerts 1 to 2 days before clinical signs occur and recovery is easy to monitor, the access to fertility data allows staff to pinpoint an exact time when AI will be optimised and the nutrition module helps farm staff to map heat stress, intakes, time spent at the feed face and alerts for diet transition problems.

    New cow brushes have been installed in every yard and the youngstock shed have cow toys for improved enrichment. The brushes are compulsory for the Morrison milk contract but it is also a great way to provide comfort and enrichment to the herd.

    Picture: Cow using cow brush (Left) and the length of the cow shed showing cows sitting comfortably (Right)


    Additional measures taken to improve animal health is through the installation of water troughs into cow sheds as these are easier to keep clean and can re-fill quickly. Alterations to the neck rails in the cubicles has improved the lying positions of cows and milk yield in both herds. All cattle sheds are now fitted with thermal heat index data loggers, to monitor changes in the internal conditions of cattle accommodation and record times when heat stress has affected cows and calves.

    Another technology soon to be introduced is Smart Bell – Wellcalf, allowing for simpler and more accurate data to be collected. It is able to record data on a daily basis in the form of weights, medicine usage and disease. The calves are monitored 24/7 and it can detect disease up to 3 days before clinical signs are obvious, this technology can help reduce antibiotic usage, reduce mortality rates and improve age at first calving.


    Improve staff work efficiencies
      

    The implementation of auto scrapers in the sheds has reduced the requirement of staff, equating to 2,920 hours per year saved in staff costs. The use of auto scrapers has reduced the need and reliance of diesel-powered tractors and it has also improved animal health, as the scrapers run every 2 hours and it eliminates slurry build up which results in cleaner cows.

    An introduction of a calving gate in the dry cow shed has allowed for the safe examination of cows and the potential for safe assistance during calving, the gate also allows for the safe administration of medication via injection or bolus routes. Additional improvements are likely to occur in this area with the addition of calving mats, a calf transport box and wash.

    Picture: A collection of photos showing the position of the automatic scraper in a cow shed (Left) and the calving gate installed (Right).

    Next steps...

    What does the future hold for the dairy sub-group?

    The question is how efficient would it be to graze Holstein milking cows, would it result in a loss of BCS and liveweight, loss of production or an effect on the next lactation?

    To avoid any detrimental losses, the dairy unit is considering an investment into some new genetics by incorporating Montbelliard and Viking Red semen breeds into the Holstein herd. The idea is to create a small block calving small herd within the bigger herd that will be able to go out and graze efficiently and make use of grass and improve the farms milk to forage ratio. This small herd would allow for research to commence into feed efficiency with the goal of lowering methane emissions in cross bred cows. The Holstein cows selected to create the start of this small herd were served in August/September of 2023 and we will be expecting the first generation of cross dairy cattle in May/June of 2024.

    Picture: A Montbeliarde cross dairy cow in a field

    Youngstock & Grass and Forage

    The current project being conducted by the grass and forage sub-group in collaboration with the youngstock sub-group, is precision grazing management & virtual fencing, the are several benefits associated with precision grazing which can be split in economic and environmental benefits:


    Economic

    • Increased pasture production and yield
    • Better grass quality and utilisation
    • Extended grazing season
    • Higher stocking rates/carrying capacity
    • Higher liveweight gain per hectare


    Environmental

    • Lower inputs (e.g. fertiliser and pesticides)
    • Better excreta distribution
    • Improved soil structure
    • Soil carbon sequestration
    • Increased biodiversity (above and below ground)

    As part of the project, virtual fencing was introduced to a small group of heifers. The virtual fencing was achieved through GPS collars which played an audible melody and if necessary, emitting an electrical pulse to the neck to deter the heifer from crossing the virtual boundary. The heifers wore ‘deactivated’ collars for a couple of weeks to ensure they were comfortable wearing them. Then the collars were ‘activated’ on the 7th of September to begin the training period, only one boundary was introduced at the initial stage of training but after 4-5 days a second virtual boundary was introduced. On the 13th of September, rotational grazing started and the heifers were moved to a new area every 3 days.

    Picture: Heat map showing the distribution of grazing for one area of the virtual fencing project during the demo (Left) and a screenshot highlighting the tracking of the heifers on the third day of grazing an area, preempting the move the next day (Right).

    Next steps...

    The sub-groups are dedicated to continuously improving and adapting this project, they have applied for more ES funding to purchase 30 more GPS collars to conduct this project using more heifers. They are looking at combining this project with better grass monitoring (e.g. using a rising plate meter) and also have the opportunity to work with other sub-groups or ES farm groups to tie in other measures (e.g. soil and biodiversity assessments).

    Pigs

    An ongoing project for the Future Farm pig unit is assessing the pig unit water quality and safety. Biofilms are collections of one or more species of microbes, adhered to a surface, working together to survive and are usually encapsulated by a protective matrix (mainly polysaccharides). The design of the project was to take water samples from the water lines after power cleaning and after disinfecting the header tanks with either QUILL WATER-PURE SANITISER or MS Oxy-clean plus, to test for harmful microbes that could cause severe illness in pigs.

    Picture: A table representing the interim results from the pig unit water quality and safety project, highlighting the results before and after disinfecting the water lines.

    The project would look at taking water samples from two batches of finishing pigs and each batch would last 54 days. Interim results of the project highlight that the water samples taken after power washing contain bacterial contamination of the water from presumptive microbes such as Enterococci and E.Coli, whereas after disinfecting the tanks with either disinfectant the levels of presumptive microbes was negligible.

    Another project the pig sub-group has been working on is accurately calculating the greenhouse gas emissions produced from the pig unit by using an online carbon calculator. Figures have been produced and compared with benchmark figures, highlighting the total emissions produced are 50% lower but the performance output of the pig is 30% greater than the benchmark. Compared to the benchmark farms, the pig unit purchases less feed and the increase in performance output is a result of better feed efficiency, resulting in higher than average piglets reared per sow per year, weaning weight, kilogram weaned per sow per year.

    Picture: A photo of a group of weaning piglets in the HAU pig unit (Left) and picture of the group of finishing pigs in the HAU pig uint (Right).

    Next steps...

    What can be done to improve the performance of the pig unit in the future?

    • The pig unit has recently introduced a 2nd finisher ration at the 80kg to 112kg weight range, which contains a lower true protein content to lower the carbon emissions per liveweight gain from the unit.
    • There is also an ongoing formulation trial with the objective of reducing carbon emissions, the trial would consist of three diets labelled A, B and C and contain different quantities of a standard (including LUC Soya), low carbon soya source and low carbon and beans formulation.
    • Manure analysis to determine the quantity of non-utilised minerals from the diets, as the pig unit produces approximately 7083 m3 per year of manure with most of the manure coming from the finisher unit.
    • What can be done with this manure? Well the pig sub-group and Future Farm are working together to achieve the best outcome to manage all aspects of manure on the farm. We will keep you updated!

    Poultry

    There are no ongoing projects at the moment but HAU and Future Farm currently support research projects across the Poultry sector.
    We are currently investigating potential commercial opportunities though!

    Sheep

    A current and ongoing ES funded project is ‘Integrating sheep into arable by evaluating the effect of alternative cover crops compared to stubble turnips’. The project was developed as there has been an ongoing suggestion to increase the usage of cover crops in arable rotations and move away from monocultures, however, to an agronomist’s point of view there is concern of sheep grazing on stubble turnips as there is potential this grazing causes internal potato defects and club root disease.

    The project uses a cover crop called Vitality mix which is manufactured by KingsCrops, the trial uses the Vitality mix but also its separate components of Clover, Oats, Radish, Stubble turnips and Vetch. The objectives of the project are to evaluate the nutritional availability of crops and their suitability for sheep, evaluate sheep grazing preference by use of GPS collars and evaluate the Stubby Root Nematode (SRN) populations relative to crop type.


    Findings for 2023:

    • GPS data not reliable due to error at set up
    • A significant difference was seen in DM availability of crops
    • DM availability of crops was severely affected by frost damage
    • A significant difference was seen in nematode reproduction factor


    The next steps of the project include the evaluation of soil parameters for example earthworm counts, organic matter, mineral N and visual evaluation of soil structure (VESS). Monitor DM availability relative to temperature, evaluate the effect of sheep grazing on SRN population compared to non-grazing and continuation of the project.

    On a side note… Outdoor lambing has also been introduced in 2023, with 56 shearlings lambing outdoors, with only two DOA lambs born and one lamb lost at two weeks of age. Each shearling mothered successfully and one reared triplets! The next season will increase to nearly 170 ewes lambing outdoors and the Future Farm team are hoping to increase the numbers over time, depending on grassland availability and the success of the flock outdoors.

    Next steps...

    A new project has been awarded to the ES farm sheep sub-group working in association with sheep genetics company Innovis on a project called 'Breed for CH4nge - Breeding Low Methane Sheep', this new project consists of a 3-year study to evaluate methane emissions, health and efficiency of lambs bred from breeding ewes with a known genetic trait of reducing enteric methane production.

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