Livestock farming can benefit from interventions that promise to make meat production more sustainable and cost effective

The aim is to transfer nutrients more efficiently from soil to livestock, and so yield higher value food from grazing land, rather than lose them as pollutants in waterways or as noxious emissions. Working out how to do that is a multidisciplinary operation across many scales, from the micro-cellular to the macro-commercial.

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We want nutrients to walk off farms, not flow or evaporate.

It's the mantra of livestock scientists, aware of how ruminants are demonised as inefficient because they retain no more than 20% of the nitrogen they consume, belch greenhouse gases, foul water courses and degrade land.

North Wyke Farm Platform

A key advantage of Rothamsted Research is its unique facility in the UK of about 350 hectares of farmland in Devon, which supports three experimental farms over 63ha that are known as the North Wyke Farm Platform National Capability. This platform allows studies to go beyond the level of individual plants, animals and fields; the three farmlets, each around 21ha, are highly instrumented to record the impact of detailed interventions.

At one extreme, researchers are investigating the chemical, physical and biological interactions that drive nutrient pathways from soil through plants into livestock. At the other, they are assessing farming practices to evolve management systems that optimise animal husbandry, from grazing to genetics, and to establish drivers for land cultivation, such as new varieties of grasses that can grow in difficult ground and also provide nourishing feed.

Tracking nutrients at this scale is no straightforward matter. It engages an array of technological devices, from laser sensors and flumes on hydrologically isolated catchments to ground chambers and atmospheric filters. These devices measure run-off from pastures precisely, record gaseous fluxes in the soil and analyse air samples for contaminants in the smallest concentrations.

The task is immense and urgent

The global population is projected to top 9 billion by the middle of this century and expected to demand a 70% increase in food production. So what is the role for grazing livestock as part of food security?

While over consumption of animal products remains a major issue, in the West at least, meat is still an essential component of many diets, with high quality and metabolically accessible protein, vitamins and mineral constituents. Greater efficiency in its production, and on land unsuitable for arable farming, should also reduce its environmental footprint in terms of the comparable resources used to yield the equivalent of its nutritional value per hectare from cereal crops.

Soil-to-Nutrition programme

With data starting to accumulate at North Wyke, researchers are pondering the many trade-offs of sustainable farming as they devise metrics to cover three main and competing demands: societal needs, for highly nutritious food; economic needs, for production efficiencies; and environmental needs, for minimal impact. All three are linked and mutually dependent; for example, pasture seeded with a single plant variety could yield highly performing livestock, in terms of weight gain per day, but the downside would be loss of local biodiversity.

The work, part of the institute’s strategic Soil-to-Nutrition (S2N) programme, is poised to break knowledge boundaries and provide sustainable benefits in the UK and abroad; the North Wyke site is a leading partner in the Global Farm Platform initiative, an international network of experimental farms in every region and climatic zone of the world.

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