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Eight strategies for efficient and sustainable livestock farming

Cows at Rothamsted Research, North Wyke

Livestock farming, that works best for individuals, communities and the planet, should be supported by studies on best practice using research farm platform facilities.

Eight strategies to make cows, sheep and other cud-chewing, or ruminant, livestock a more sustainable part of the food supply are outlined by Rothamsted Research scientists in a Comment piece in Nature this week. The Comment was led by Mark Eisler and Michael Lee, University of Bristol UK and Graeme Martin, University of Western Australia, Perth.

Raising animals for milk and meat is often considered at odds with the challenge of feeding a growing human population, but there are health benefits to eating animal protein. Furthermore, cows, sheep and some other livestock can be fed grass and crop residues that humans cannot eat, the authors point out. “We must figure out how to keep livestock in ways that work best for individuals, communities and the planet,” say the authors.

Working to boost yields from local breeds makes more sense in the long term than importing breeds that are successful elsewhere, Eisler and colleagues write. For example, kept under controlled conditions and in temperate climates in Europe and North America, Holstein dairy cows can produce 30 litres of milk a day. Tens of thousands, at least, of these animals have been exported to Asia and Africa in attempts to alleviate malnutrition. But exposed to hot climates and tropical diseases, the cows produce much less milk, and require more expensive care and feeding than native breeds do.

Simple dietary supplements can help to boost productivity. These alter microbes in the rumen to improve animals’ nutrition, meaning that in some cases, animals can produce more milk and meat for proportionally less greenhouse gas.

Finally, the authors explain how a network of research farms — known as farm platforms, exemplified at Rothamsted Research, North Wyke, UK; Future Farm, Perth Australia, and Silent Valley, Kerala, India  — is starting to evaluate economic and environmental benefits of these and other farming practices.

Professor John Crawford leads Rothamsted’s Sustainable Systems Strategic Programme, which is strategically funded by the BBSRC, and he said: “In order to answer questions about sustainability of agriculture, scientists are increasingly dependent on the too few remaining long-term research platforms around the world. This paper is a welcome reminder of the need for long-term strategic investment to secure future food supply. Only by studying the behaviour of the whole production system, including total inputs, total outputs and its productivity over sufficiently long time can we eliminate unintended consequences such as intolerable levels of soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss. North Wyke leads the way for next generation platforms capable of providing all the necessary data, and the global network ensures the widest possible translation of research into practice change”.

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Executive Director, Science, said: “It’s great to see the benefits of BBSRC’s national capability funding being recognised in this way. North Wyke Farm Platform and the other BBSRC national capabilities are valuable resources for UK bioscience, helping world-class research take place to deliver economic and social benefits for all.”

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About the University of Bristol

The University of Bristol is consistently ranked among the leaders in UK higher education.  Research-intensive and with an international reputation for quality and innovation, the University has over 18,000 students from over 100 countries, together with more than 5,000 staff.  Places at Bristol are among the most highly sought after of all UK universities.

The University was founded in 1876 and was granted its Royal Charter in 1909.  It was the first university in England to admit women on the same basis as men.  It is located in the heart of the city from which it grew, but is now a significant player on the world stage as well as a major force in the economic, social and cultural life of Bristol and South West England. 

Bristol is a member of the Worldwide Universities Network and of the Russell Group of leading research-intensive universities in the UK.

For more information see www.bristol.ac.uk

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About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.

Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 Rothamsted Researched received a total of £32.9M from the BBSRC.

About BBSRC

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk

For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes