meeting reports

May 15th 2013

Dairy Science Forum Hosts Industry Strategy Seminar at Westminster

Collaboration, Communication and Innovation - a report by the Dairy Science Forum

The Dairy Science Forum, in partnership with the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers and the British Society of Animal Science, held a seminar in Portcullis House, London, on Wednesday 15th May 2013. Under the theme of Collaboration, Communication and Innovation, the seminar brought together over 50 key UK dairy industry personnel and decision makers involved in research and development, knowledge exchange, and animal health and welfare. The seminar, which also marked the 75th meeting of the Dairy Science Forum, was hosted by Rory Stewart MP, and chaired by Professor David Leaver.

This report summarises the outcome of the seminar discussions and the opportunities for future progress of the UK dairy industry.

The Forum had been concerned for some time about the lack of progress in the UK dairy industry and considers it to be missing out on opportunities as world demand for milk and milk products increases. In response, the Forum had produced strategy papers on the need for better coordination of research and development, on improving the delivery of knowledge exchange, and on investigating how to measure the health and welfare of both dairy herds and individual cows.  The strategy papers were presented at the seminar by members of the Forum, James Neville (first chair of Dairy 2020) gave an overview of the industry initiative, and during breakout sessions delegates discussed the proposals and conclusions from the papers. The three strategy papers can be found at www.dairyscienceforum.org

Key points from the break-out discussion sessions at the seminar included:

  • In order to capitalise on global market opportunities, a renewed emphasis on coordination and funding of applied dairy R&D is needed if UK dairying is to remain competitive.  Also required is a fundamental review of current scientific and technical capacity in applied dairy research plus an Industry-wide analysis to review future research priorities.
  • Integrated delivery in the knowledge exchange/innovation networks is required with ideally one body coordinating activities (suggestions included DairyCo + Dairy UK + RABDF). The importance of connecting with all farmers was identified using all available communication technologies.
  • There is a need for objective definition and measurement methods of welfare and stress in the modern dairy animal, together with methods of bench-marking individual farm performance across diseases and across husbandry systems. Farmers must recognize that good welfare is not a cost, and there is a need for consumer information exchange to alter perceptions that may be based on assumptions and on anthropomorphic comparisons.

Discussion

According to the report, “The World Dairy Situation”, recently published by the International Dairy Federation, global milk production, largely stimulated by higher product prices, increased by 2.5% in 2011. Growth continued in 2012, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation forecasts sustained growth in the coming years. The consumption of milk and dairy products is also forecast to grow globally for the next few decades during which time the UK population is estimated to grow by at least 20%.

 Against this positive background, it is of concern that the UK dairy industry appears to be in decline as milk production continues to fail to meet quota. The UK dairy industry needs to be responding to this demand and reverse the on-going decline in production. Otherwise the UK will rely increasingly on imports from those countries taking a more positive approach to the development of their industry. It is evident that a number of EU neighbours, such as Ireland and The Netherlands, are gearing up to produce more milk. The UK is an easy target market for exported product.

Responding to this challenge will require the UK to have a competitive industry and the underlying driver of competitiveness is productivity i.e., efficiency of production. Unfortunately whilst the UK basic research underpinning agriculture is globally ‘top of the league’ the industry’s rate of growth in productivity is towards the bottom. The challenge is to increase our productivity within a sustainable intensification frame work which fully takes into account the environmental (pollution, energy, water, biodiversity) and social (animal welfare, herd size, housing verses grazing) impacts of our production systems.

Research & Development (R&D)

The reduction in applied R&D has resulted in insufficient numbers of applied researchers who directly influence farm developments. R&D information is lacking for consultants working with farmers. The decline in applied research over the past 25 years has undoubtedly been a factor in the poor growth in productivity of the UK agricultural industry as clearly set out by Dr Sinclair Mayne in his R&D paper.

There is an urgent need for a strategy for the dairy industry focused on increased productivity and competitiveness. To do so would require a coordinated approach to R&D funding from public and private sectors together with an improved capacity to carry out applied dairy research. Whilst R&D is a key component of competitiveness, it is important to recognise that innovation occurs all along the R&D pipeline.

Public sector funding of R&D which, although continuing to prioritise basic research, should also focus on filling the gaps which have developed in a number of R&D pipelines in applied research

It is important to recognise that priorities for R&D will vary according to level of decision making (government through to industry), timescale and detail.

Knowledge Exchange (KE)

From the evidence presented at seminar, a general disconnect exists between the scientific community and farmers.  Whilst the UK is not short of apparent high-level reports and meetings across the R&D pipeline, there is a high risk of confusing activity with action. KE is complex and dependent exchange of information and views. Knowledge is not generated solely through formal research, but it includes farmers learning from other farmers

There is a wide range of productivity levels across the industry and the type of KE activities differs for each sector. At the top end of the spectrum, the pull for information from progressive dairy farmers is strong and they will obtain the information they need without any push from extension workers. At the bottom end it is difficult to bring about change with any KE input, but there is a large sector in the middle which is more receptive to the push and pull of KE.

Ray Keatinge pointed out in the KE paper that the ultimate aim of knowledge exchange is to provide a range of opportunities, which allow dairy farmers to access the information, tools, methods and support they require to meet their business and personal objectives.

Animal Health and Welfare (AH&W)

Animal welfare is important to nearly half (48%) of British grocery shoppers, according to research carried out by the Institute of Grocery Distribution. But the challenge to the industry is how to measure the health, and particularly the welfare, of an animal. Whilst dairy cow research has established some indicators for measuring cow welfare, the public is influenced more by pressure groups, which often have different views on what is bad welfare, and on the interpretation of what is meant by the animal’s ‘freedom to express normal behaviour’.

In his paper, veterinary surgeon David Black, called for an objective definition and measurement method of welfare and stress in the modern dairy animal. In parallel, methods of bench-marking individual farm performance across different disease pressures and husbandry systems should be developed. The need for information exchange to correct some pressure group assumptions, and to better inform consumers, on animal health and welfare is urgent.

Industry and scientists have to some extent evaded the concerns of the public on animal health and welfare, and there is a need to use the evidence base to increasingly explain and discuss these issues.

Conclusions

  • If the UK dairy industry is to reverse the decline in milk production and respond to the global opportunities, it must improve its competitiveness.
  • R&D is a key component of competitiveness, but greater coordination between funding bodies is required together an increased focus on applied research.
  • Dairy farmers must be given easy access to information, tools, methods and support required to meet their objectives, and all involved should make better use of all the resources and the opportunities available.
  • An objective definition and measurement method of welfare and stress In dairy animals is required, and there is a need to focus on consumer information exchange.

There was considerable support during and following the seminar for the Dairy Science Forum’s strategy papers and a great deal of consensus on the key points. In the regrettable absence of a national strategy for UK dairy industry, especially with removal of quotas in 2015, what is needed now is leadership from the industry to ensure positive changes do begin to happen. The Forum, together with its co-operators, must now harness the outcomes of the seminar and identify the means by which the outcomes can influence the way forward.

The three papers can be accessed here. The Forum is grateful to DairyCo, TSB, and XL Vets for sponsoring the seminar, and to Mrs Wendy Griffin of RABDF, who undertook the seminar administration.

John Sumner

November 16th 2012

 

Dairy Science Forum visits Crichton

 

The Crichton Royal Farm, close to Dumfries, was the centre of interest at a meeting of the Dairy Science Forum at a visit in November 2011. The visit was hosted by RABDF Council member Dr Dave Roberts, who is Head of SAC Dairy Research Centre at Crichton Royal Farm and a member of the Forum.  During the visit the Forum members were updated on the Centre’s latest research work on dairy farming systems, including grassland and nutrition.Crichton Royal Farm has an area of over 250 ha of freely draining soils and rises from near sea level to about 45 m. There are two dairy units, Crichton and Acrehead with some 480 cows milked three times daily and yielding about 9000 litres. Forage maize is grown for maize silage and wheat is made into alkakage as alternative forages to grass silage. The majority of the land is however devoted to growing grass for grazing and silage.The main aim of the research programme at the Dairy Research Centre is to develop and test sustainable breeding and management systems for dairy cattle, with particular emphasis on improving health and welfare of the animals and on measuring the effects that these systems have on the environment.  It aims to develop sustainable systems of dairy production and to support the dairy industry with expert advice and training. The genetic work on the Langhill pedigree herd which started in 1970 is well respected in the industry and has continued through study of the effect of different management systems on cows of different genetic merit. Interesting studies on welfare and behaviour research are currently underway with the aim of assessing the overall impact of continuous housing on the national herd. The outcome will influence housing design such as the purpose built loafing areas, provision of feed and “furniture” such as brushes, and importantly the development of techniques to assess welfare by measuring animals themselves rather than the quality of the housing.The programme includes development of a technical understanding of changes that can be made to land management to ameliorate climate change especially greenhouse gas emissions,  improving energy use in the dairy, measuring cow methane levels in addition to the challenges faced when farming in an NVZ.

 

November 11th 2008

 

Visit to Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS),

Aberystwyth University

 
IBERS was formed on 1 April 2008 through the merger of the former BBSRC institute; the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER), and two Aberystwyth University departments; the Institute of Rural Sciences and the Institute of Biological Sciences. Professor Wayne Powell started as the new institute director on 1 September 2008. Following its formation, IBERS now has over 300 staff, farms over 1200 ha, and teaches about 1200 undergraduate and postgraduate students.
 
A number of presentations were made to highlight some of the plant-orientated research taking place in the Animal and Microbial Sciences pillar of IBERS. Topics presented included:
 
The role of plant enzymes in rumen proteolysis, by Dr Alison Kingston-Smith. Dr Kingston-Smith explained how our understanding of plant proteases has increased in relation to their effects on the breakdown of forage proteins following consumption by the ruminant animal. Until relatively recently it has been assumed that the initial degradation of plant proteins was carried out by proteases released from colonising microbes in the rumen. However, incubation of plant material in microbe-free buffer in otherwise rumen-like conditions (dark, warm and anaerobic) results in similar patterns of protein disappearance and amino acid appearance as occurs in similar conditions in the presence of rumen microbes. Therefore, differences in the activity of plant proteases, at least in terms of their action with regards to recently ingested forage material, offers scope for manipulation by plant breeders to reduce inefficiency of use of plant proteins for ruminant (meat and milk) production.
 
Microbial colonisation of feed in the rumen, by Sharon Huws and Joan Edwards. Dr Huws outlined the importance of the microbial population of the rumen in terms of the ruminant animal being able to use parts of its diet not available to monogastric animals. A key element to this is the development of biofilms on the surface of feed particles, which are structured communities of bacterial cells formed on the surface of a feed particle, covered by self-produced layers of extracellular polymeric substances (EPS, or ‘slime’). Slime formation has a protective function, to prevent protozoa from engulfing bacteria, and also to help concentrate (and prevent the removal) of degradative enzymes secreted by the bacteria. 
 
Polyphenol oxidase in red clover and potential benefits in ruminant nutrition, by Dr Ana Winters. Polyphenol oxidase (PPO) is a very common enzyme that catalyses the oxidation of phenols to quinones. This process leads to the undesirable browning reaction in damaged fruit and vegetables. In forage plants, such as red clover, PPO catalyses the formation of quinones can bind with plant proteins and reduce their availability to microbial degradation in the silo and also in the rumen. Reducing the speed and/or extent of degradation of forage proteins in silage and in the rumen means that less nitrogen may be absorbed from the rumen as ammonia, and thus excreted in urine as urea, thereby reducing the environmental footprint of ruminant agriculture. PPO activity is high in red clover, but not white clover, some important forage grasses (such as cocksfoot) also have high PPO activities. Although cocksfoot is not agronomically important in the UK, it demonstrates the potential for use of PPO in other more important forage grasses.
 
Effects of grass and clover mixtures on methane production, by Dr Eun Joong Kim. Ruminant livestock account for a large proportion of the methane emitted from the UK. The project that Dr Kim is working on is testing the effect of using mixtures of high water-soluble carbohydrate (WSC) varieties of ryegrass on the output of methane by sheep. A series of in vitro and in vivo measurements are being used to compare varieties with different heading dates, grown as monocultures and as mixed swards, on methane production. Preliminary data suggests that increased WSC concentration in the grass dry matter reduces the amount of methane produced, possibly because the additional WSC encourages a rumen fermentation that promotes propionate production (acting as a sink for metabolic hydrogen) rather than acetate production (in which carbon dioxide acts as a sink, producing methane).
 
Role of dietary fatty acids in ruminant product quality, by Dr Michael Lee. Despite the fact that fresh grass contains relatively high concentrations of polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA), ruminant products, in the form of meat and milk, contain a relatively high proportion of saturated fatty acids as a result of the biohydrogenation by the rumen microbial population. Work at IBERS is being carried out to determine the best ways to improve the concentrations of fatty acids in meat and milk that are linked with beneficial effects on human health, such as conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This includes investigating the effect of genetics (e.g. dairy versus beef cattle for meat production) and nutrition (e.g. use of red clover versus ryegrass).
 
Visits were also made to the glasshouses to hear about plant breeding activities being carried out in the Crop Breeding and Genomics and the Plant-Based Biorenewals pillars at IBERS. The former aims to use knowledge of the plant genome to breed (mainly) forage plants that are resilient to climate changes (e.g. drought tolerance) and improve plant nutritional value for animal feeding.  The latter is developing plant-based renewal energy resources for biomass, biofuel, and bio-feedstock requirements.
 
A tour of the metabolism unit at Trawsgoed Research Farm was also made. This has facilities for housing and measurements to be made on individual beef, sheep and dairy animals. This is equipped to measure nitrogen partitioning in the animal, to determine the effects, for example, of different diets on nitrogen use efficiency, with the aim of reducing N excretion from the animal. Equipment is also available that enables methane production from sheep offered different diets to be measured, again with the aim of reducing the environmental impact of livestock farming.