UK 'farm lab' plows technology to help raise animals sustainably

A research project uses cutting-edge technology on a real-life farm to test ways of making agriculture more sustainable

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Sheep graze at Rothamsted Research’s “Farm Lab” in North Wyke, Devon, England, on Sept. 13, 2019, in this screengrab taken from video. — Thomson Reuters Foundation

NORTH WYKE, England — It is an idyllic countryside scene — an embrace of rolling hills dappled with Instagram-worthy bales of straw, as sheep and cows graze under a bright blue sky. Completing the picture, a stately manor graces the background.

But this bucolic setting belies a research project that uses cutting-edge technology on a real-life farm to test ways of making agriculture more sustainable as rising temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions threaten productivity.

"We want to make an efficient (agricultural) system so that we can consume as much of the nutrients we put in, and we lose as little. That's the ultimate goal," said Taro Takahashi, a research scientist at Rothamsted Research's "Farm Lab".

To achieve that balance, scientists monitor nutrient levels in everything from fertilizers, water and animal feed to meat, manure and methane to try to understand how nutrients are gained and lost in the farming process.

The project was set up nearly a decade ago in North Wyke, 325 km (200 miles) west of London, and every square centimeter of its 63 hectares (156 acres) is closely monitored.

Cabins at the fields' edge house equipment to measure and analyze each drop of water running off the land.

Others measure emissions from the soil of planet-heating greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

The animals sport electronic tags in their ears, allowing researchers to track their methane emissions, while a high-tech sheep shed allows everything they eat — and dispose of — to be recorded and measured.

On-site laboratories analyze the information and quantify soil health, the link between forage, growth and emissions, and how much of the nutrients that enter the animals appears in the resulting meat.

"Each component is being measured by many research stations around the world," said Takahashi. "What is unique about us is that we try to quantify all inputs into and outputs from farming systems."

Doing all this on a real farm, instead of computer modelling, also lends nuance to an increasingly heated debate over livestock farming and meat consumption, he said.

Livestock foments 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, nearly half of which comes from gases emitted by ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats from digestion and manure, according to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

This has led to calls for developed nations to reduce meat consumption. A July report from the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI) suggested the top beef and lamb consumers cut their weekly intake to the equivalent of 1.5 burgers by 2050.

But Takahashi said the debate sometimes underplayed livestock's important contributions, pointing to manure's importance to soil fertility.

Timothy Searchinger, the WRI report's lead author and a researcher at Princeton University, called Farm Lab's work valuable, but emphasized the need to manage a projected 70 percent spike in future demand for meat and milk.

"For the foreseeable future, more or less everyone who eats a lot of meat and milk should try to eat less," he said.

"All solutions require both moderating demand and reducing emissions and improving natural resource efficiency ... So kudos to this kind of rigorous research."

The debate is especially pointed in this corner of southwest England, where for centuries the land has served as pasture, partly due to conventional wisdom that it is hard to grow cereals in the clay soil.

But that make-up provides for an ideal testing ground. The soil, along with the gently sloping land, allows researchers to capture all the water, and the nutrients carried in it, as it passes through the fields.

Information gleaned from the testing is helping scientists at Rothamsted, the world's oldest agricultural research institute whose North Wyke site spans nearly 400 hectares, to develop more sustainable farming methods.

For example, data drawn from animal sensors showed some cattle emitting up to 40 percent less methane than others. Identifying and breeding those could be one simple way to cut emissions.

Growing legumes cut emissions by up to 20 percent at Farm Lab, due to less need for synthetic fertilizers, which some say contribute more than 10% of agricultural emissions.

Legumes also improve soil health, which the researchers say plays a big role in improving the quality of grazing land.

"Because the pasture grows better, the animal grows better," said Takahashi.

Demonstrating such short-term economic benefits to farmers makes them more likely to accept changes, he added.

Legumes can also help reduce emissions, said Anne Mottet, the FAO's livestock policy officer who was part of the team behind a landmark 2013 report on tackling climate change in the sector.

Feed production accounts for half of livestock emissions, but replacing soybeans from deforested areas with legumes grown locally would reduce carbon footprints, she explained of the approach that also factors in emissions along the supply chain.

Along those lines, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says transport is responsible for 14 percent of emissions, but that only accounts for direct emissions, Mottet said.

Back at the Farm Lab, researchers are moving on to the project's next phases, including developing a priority list for commercial farmers of what they should measure to achieve sustainable production.

Another is turning a third of the land over to cereals for human consumption, challenging the notion that they will not grow in the area in hopes of establishing a local alternative to livestock farming.

"If we are to trust conventional wisdom, we cannot do it, but we don't know. And as a publicly funded institute, we need to know," said Takahashi. — Thomson Reuters Foundation


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