Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Second leg of Nuffield journey - onto Vermont

Nuffield scholar Becky Willson is travelling around the world to visit countries to find out more about emissions reductions projects for farmers. In the second of a three-part series, she visits Vermont and looks at the issue of water management.


The second leg of my journey took me north to Vermont to meet farmers and understand why they were changing their management practices. A big concern for these farmers was water management. Vermont has a growing local food movement, connecting consumers with farmers and its location allows it access to many urban affluent populations including Boston and New York.

The Centre for Sustainable Agriculture in Vermont was running a project looking at farming and climate change and working with farmers using research on-farm to provide farm-level data. I saw a range of projects, including monitoring nutrient levels, sediment and water loss from fields under different tillage and the use of woodchip pads as an out-wintering strategy for livestock farmers. Connecting scientists and farmers makes it possible to see what works before making large investments. It was a great couple of days meeting people who were open to new ideas and proving concepts by looking at farm-based research.




The big issue in Vermont is water quality and there is a real threat that there may be increased regulation to address the issues of run-off, water quality and soil erosion. I met with the Champlain Valley Farmer Coalition, a farmer-led organisation set up to provide leadership and a unified voice for farmers to proactively protect water quality in Lake Champlain. They are a not-for-profit organisation that makes sure farmers’ voices are heard by the general public, policy makers, other farmers and regulators.


Their chair explained: “We are a group of farmers in the Lake Champlain Basin who have taken a leadership role, showing that farm economic resiliency and a clean lake can work together. We are primarily a farmer-based corporation that exists to be a unified voice for farmers who are proactively addressing water quality.”

Following my time in Vermont, I journeyed to Pennsylvania to a conference on Sustainable Agriculture and then flew to Colorado to talk metrics and models with the team that construct America’s annual inventory of greenhouse gases. They are developing tools for farmers that allow them to understand the impact or opportunity of changing management on emissions, and are integrating these into delivery programmes.


My next blog will take me to Nebraska, where I will be looking at soil health and understanding how with their low rainfall affects their farming. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

American Adventures – Becky Willson's Nuffield Scholar trip

Nuffield scholar Becky Willson is travelling around the world to visit countries running emissions reductions projects for farmers. In a three-part blog series she gives an insight into what she learnt during a recent trip to the United States.


I was awarded an AHDB-sponsored Nuffield scholarship in 2015 to look at the importance of communicating carbon reduction to the agricultural industry and how to motivate farmers to learn more about how to reduce emissions and achieve business benefits.

The most recent leg of my Nuffield travels took me on a three-week trip to the US to see some of the projects that have been taking place stateside focusing specifically on carbon and greenhouse gas emissions reductions. I arrived the day after President Trump started his travel ban and, despite some trepidation, I was thankfully allowed in to begin a busy schedule of farm visits and meetings.

My trip schedule (as with all good Nuffield visits) spanned the width of the US, and involved meetings with politicians, project holders, researchers, farmers and a few other characters. My aim was to get more of an understanding of what is happening on farm around carbon reduction and look at some of the supported programmes to find out what is motivating farmers to change their management practices.



I quickly learnt my first lesson, which was to check the weather forecast before going to North America in the middle of winter, where the temperature is regularly -10 Degrees Celsius.

My adventure started with a visit to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington DC to talk policies, programmes and practices. I met a range of different people and it was interesting to hear about the different activities going on through the climate hubs model, which allows farmers to access payments for practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions or improve soil carbon sequestration. A stand-out benefit of this model is co-ordination. The hubs included the USDA, The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Agricultural Research Service, universities, extension providers and others that provide co-ordinated actions, which are adapted to regional conditions and priorities. Bringing everyone around the table ensured that the messaging to famers is consistent and everything is included in the discussion.

Another interesting project I learnt more about is the Useful to Usable project, which for the first time is including social scientists in projects that are able to address the very question of behavioural change. Randy Johnson, who heads up the Agricultural research organisation NIFA’s global climate change work explained: 

It’s got to be a team effort, and include co-production of knowledge, if you do that you are halfway there as you are all invested in the solutions. We can’t deal with the big stuff in isolation, we have got to co-produce and work together.”




It was a fascinating first leg of my journey, and I have gained so much insight into farming practices in the US. Catch the second part of my blog next week, which looks at my time spent in Vermont and understanding their uptake of new technology in farming.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

How to integrate livestock into cereal rotations

This blog comes from Paul Hill, AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds Knowledge Exchange Manager for the South East. He has worked with a number of monitor farmers who farm both arable and livestock. Paul originally posted this blog in January of this year.

During a discussion regarding how best to integrate livestock into cereal rotations, it suddenly struck me how specialised agricultural staff have now become and that the days of the multi-talented ‘General Farm Worker’ now seems to have becoming a thing of the past.

While being a specialist isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it does mean that, for many arable farms, it’s not easy to introduce livestock onto a farm as the staff expertise is often not there.
To make matters even more complicated, SMR 13 of the cross compliance rules stipulate that livestock keepers must have sufficient competent staff to prevent livestock welfare problems.

The final concern that arable staff may well have is the fact managing livestock doesn’t go hand in hand with the word ‘holiday’!

However, there is a way around all of this that would be advantageous across different farming sectors and could certainly create opportunities

Farm grazing agreements, rolling grazing licences or share farming agreements would give a great opportunity for specialised arable farms to access skilled stock people and the livestock they manage. It may even bring you extra income.

However, before bringing a third party in to graze your cover crops, rotational grass swards or even your forward cereals, you need to be aware of the responsibilities associated with any such agreement. As it now stands the liabilities under a short term licence fall to the landowner.

Therefore, it is the owner of the land who is liable if a CC breach is breached by this grazing. This means that the financial penalty would fall upon the land owner (Licensor) rather than the grazier (Licensee).   With this in mind, it is crucial that a formal Grazing Licence is duly understood and signed by both parties prior to any animals being released onto the land.  Within this licence, it may well be worth entering a clause that ensures the Licensor is indemnified against any BPS deductions as a result of the licensee breaching any associated CC conditions.  However, this doesn’t make things rocket proof as the only real way to ensure this is to develop a good, trusting, working relationship with the grazier which can only be created if the agreement is beneficially working for both parties. It’s important to ensure everyone achieves the goals they require!

As part of the interest surrounding the benefits of livestock within arable operations, AHDB is carrying out a trial looking at beef systems in arable rotations. This project is investigating the possible benefits of using cattle within a more holistic farming operation in order to increase soil biology, and to benefit subsequent cereal yields through the integration of herbal leys within a rotation.

This sort of management may well prove to be important for farms that have a high black-grass infestation. Bringing the land out of production for two years and using it as a grazing and forage before returning it to cereals can help deplete the existing black-grass seed bank. As a bonus, this could generate a financial income from the grazing rent and/or, forage sales.

>Black-grass information sheet

Finally, there’s a non-profit national programme that promotes the financial sustainability of grazing various types of grassland, and utilising the right livestock for the right purpose. The Grazing Animals Project (GAP) has a grazing database that highlights available land and livestock, called ‘Stock Keep’. This can be found on the GAP website, grazinganimalsproject.org.uk.

With this in mind, I wonder if this kind of methodology now needs to be extended into mainstream farming so to encourage arable farmers and livestock managers to work more closely together. By working together, we can use each other’s specialisms to the greatest advantage.




The original blog can be found on the AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds website: http://cereals-blog.ahdb.org.uk/how-to-integrate-livestock-into-cereal-rotations-staff/

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

AHDB is beefing up returns from grass

Matt House is a beef farmer based in Somerset.  He is part of a group of farmers who are involved with the AHDB-funded ‘Beef from Grass’ project, which aims to highlight the potential of grass and forages for beef cattle production and provide practical guidance on how beef producers can improve their current grazing management. Here Matt blogs about the two-year project and how his herd is benefiting from good grass management.


I am part of a group of four beef improver farmers, who are interested in improving our beef performance from grass. A key element of the project was to link us up with four mentor grassland beef producers, which have really helped us in seeing the potential of grass and grazed forage to aid beef growth rates in beef cattle. The project is in its second year and I have seen some positive results. I have managed to increase forage utilisation by 30 per cent and grass growth from 9.8t Dry Matter/ha to 12-13t Dry Matter/ha on the new grass leys. How have I managed to do this?

The first thing I did when taking over the running of Bowden Farms was implement rotational grazing. This was achieved by splitting up the grass fields into smaller two hectare paddocks using electric fencing. The 69 Aberdeen Angus cross cows and their calves were moved every three days throughout the grazing season. The calves were sold at nine months of age, with an average weight of 321kg per head, which meant in total I managed to produce more than 22 tonnes of beef solely from forage.

I measure grass growth on a weekly basis using a plate meter. I upload this to grass management software, which assists me in analysing the data. I am currently focusing on preparing for the 2017 grazing season and have used the software to put together a spring grazing plan. The benefit of this is that it takes the guesswork out of grassland management and ensures that sufficient grass is grazed early enough to allow time for re-growth for the second rotation. The current grazing wedge is shown below, with grass growth at 12.9 Dry Matter kg/ha/day. So far this year 10.1kg N/ha of fertiliser has been applied.



I implement a 100 per cent out-wintering policy, which has helped me reduce my cost of production. The 122 suckler cows and heifers, which are due to calve this month, were out-wintered on stubble turnips supplemented with round bales of straw and hay arranged in situ.
The suckler cows will calve on the grass paddocks using the Dry Matter intakes calculated by the grass management software, which will adjust the cows’ daily grass allowance. This means that as each cow calves she will be changed from “dry” to “lactating” and the grass allocation will go up from 10kg/Dry Matter to 16kg/dry Matter, therefore changing the time spent in each paddock for the whole herd.


Alongside measuring the grass, I am also very keen to track animal performance throughout the grazing season. The cows have been weighed and body condition scored (BCS) before calving and their calves will be weighed at birth and then regularly throughout the year. This way I will be able to accurately measure how much beef I am producing from the grass.

Key outcomes in March 2017:

  •        All cows body condition scored (BCS), the average was BCS 3
  •        All first-calving heifers condition scored, average was BCS 3
  •    Cows will be monitored closely for signs of calving and removed from turnips and grouped on paddocks accordingly

For more information on the Beef from Grass project sign up to our Grazing Club e-newsletter by emailing: brp@ahdb.org.uk. More information is available in the BRP manual Planning Grazing Strategies for Better Returns.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Red meat and health: cutting through the confusion

It can sometimes feel like the red meat sector is beset with challenges on all sides. Livestock farmers are only too familiar with the challenges of legislative issues, red tape, day-to-day animal husbandry and business management, and all the other things that go with running a farm. Then they turn on the news or open a newspaper and see a report or an advert urging people to eat less red meat for the sake of their health or because it is bad for the environment.

Rebutting these messages is a constant uphill battle for an industry with limited resources, particularly as there are now a plethora of days and weeks celebrating veganism and vegetarianism. On our side, individuals and organisations within the beef and lamb sectors have got together to promote Great British Beef week (from April 23) and Love Lamb Week (from September 1), which are gaining momentum year on year.



These weeks focus on celebrating all that is good about our products and our environmentally sustainable production systems. Unfortunately, all too often, those who oppose meat consumption focus on our negatives rather than their own positives.

There should be a balanced, properly informed debate on issues around consumption of red meat so people can make their own choices, and the work of AHDB seeks to provide that balance, using evidence-based messaging.



The reality is that we are omnivores. Meat has always been a part of the human diet and ninety-seven per cent of the population still eat it to some extent. Grazing animals, such as cattle and sheep, turn something we can’t eat (grass) into something we can, the nutrients from which are effectively deployed by our digestive system.
With so many headlines about the need to reduce our meat consumption, it is important to remember that levels of red meat consumption in the UK remain within the recommended guideline amount of 70g per day cooked weight. Red meat is a rich source of protein, which helps build and maintain muscles, plus it provides a number of vitamins and minerals, including B12, which is not found naturally in foods of plant origin.

As for the impact on the environment, many of England’s most iconic landscapes only look the way they do because of the extensive farming of cattle and sheep over hundreds of years. Livestock are responsible for some greenhouse gases in the form of methane, which is a natural by-product of rumination, however, these levels are falling as farming becomes more efficient.



On a final point, just ask yourself what is more natural than having cattle and sheep grazing pastures that could not be used to produce food in any other way?

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

An insight into how AHDB Beef & Lamb on-farm events are organised

In 2016, AHDB Beef & Lamb held just under 200 technical events across the country. Here Gemma Beevers, Events Manager (Knowledge Exchange), blogs about the work of her team and the importance of producer feedback in planning successful technical events.

I head up the AHDB Knowledge Exchange (KE) events team, running a programme of technical events for levy payers to help them to develop and improve their businesses and provide them with innovative ways of working.

We are a team of five (four of us are based in the York office, and one team member at the head office in Stoneleigh) who work across all six of AHDB’s divisions to deliver a range of practical, farmer-focused events. In the case of AHDB Beef & Lamb, these events are delivered under the Better Returns Programme (BRP) brand.



My team organise the logistical side of the events, looking after the venues, speakers, travel, accommodation, catering and equipment. We working closely with the KE team, who provide the technical content and source speakers as they generally know the best specialist speaker on particular subjects.

Once the logistics have been confirmed we then need to promote the events – I’m responsible for advertising through third parties such as the NFU, the National Sheep Association, vets, auction marts, and local grazing groups, as well as our regional hubs and communications teams.  

Our events are designed to help tackle current issues and to work with industry partners so producers are given the most relevant and up to date information.

Live to Dead events, which help producers understand the importance of livestock meeting target specification, are some of our most popular. The events were developed as it became apparent that the whole supply chain needed to have a better understanding of how to select livestock for slaughter. These specialist events will become even more important over the next three years as they will help us to meet our strategic aim to increase the number of animals meeting supplier specifications by 2% year on year, reaching 58% for cattle and 58% for sheep by 2020.

Last year more than 3,500 people attended our AHDB Beef & Lamb KE events. After every event we ask for feedback, which is essential for us in understanding how to improve our service to better suit the needs of our producers. In 2016, the feedback from our BRP events showed that more than 99% of attendees thought event speakers were knowledgeable and presented well on the technical subjects, as well as 97% of attendees who said that the event gave them practical ideas they could use to improve their business.

For details on the latest events in your area visit our website, where you can book online.

We always appreciate your feedback in helping us to improve our service to you. Please email us (brp.events@ahdb.org.uk) with any comments.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Are you up for the challenge?

Dr Liz Genever, AHDB Beef & Lamb senior livestock scientist, is calling on English sheep producers to take part in a new initiative that aims to understand the consequences of the rearing phase on the lifetime performance of ewes. Here she blogs about the project and what you can do to get involved.

Liz GeneverThe Challenge Sheep project is a new AHDB Beef & Lamb research project which aims to improve the efficiency of breeding flocks in England by looking at the management of ewe replacements. The project will track around 5,000 replacements from a range of sheep farms over seven years to understand how flock performance can be improved.

The initiative is the successor of the sheep key performance indicator (KPI) project, which ran from 2013 until 2016, and gathered and analysed data from three flocks in England. One of the key questions identified by this project was what impact the rearing phase had on ewe lamb performance when they became shearlings and later into life. For example, one of the project farms had an issue with lungworm in shearlings and the impact of that on their performance is seen for at least two production years after they are treated.

AHDB research and on-farm trials have shown that there are clear improvements to be made in managing replacement ewes entering the national flock. The Longwool project (funded by the Meat and Livestock Commission and Defra in 2007) found that up to 15 % of replacements are not retained after their first breeding season due to culling or death. 

Young sheep can also have a negative impact on overall flock performance due to poor lamb growth rates. In England, around 1.6 million ewes are entering the flock for the first time per year. Data from 1,800 ewes in the Longwool project suggests around 4% died in their first year, with another 7% being culled after their first year. If this was applied to the English sheep flock it would equate to around £14 million of value being lost to the industry each year due to culling and death in the first breeding year. This is based on shearlings being valued at £120 and with a 50% reduction in value if culled.

The Challenge Sheep project will be based on similar research that has been done around hoggets in Australia and New Zealand. The results of the project have been translated into literature by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and we want to draw on their methodologies, such as participatory research, to benefit our own industry.

Your industry needs you!
We are looking to recruit sheep producers who will be keen to use the data they are collecting via electronic identification (EID) to improve their decisions on ewe management. All farms that participate in the project will have access to cutting-edge information and will be supported by the AHDB research and knowledge exchange team to interpret the data so they can get the maximum benefit for their business. The aim is also to improve the gross margin of the Challenge Sheep farms by 25% over the duration of the project. The findings of the project will be communicated to industry through events, newsletters and articles involving the successful producers.

The project requires accurate data such as weights, body condition score, lambing data and lamb performance, which is already being collected through our benchmarking programme, so it should just be a case of looking at the data differently and making decisions supported by information gathered from the project. 

Any producers who are interested need to fill in an application form and then the AHDB Beef & Lamb research team will create a shortlist. In late spring/early summer I will be visiting the shortlisted farms, together with the newly appointed Challenge Sheep project manager before the final decisions are made. We are aiming to visit at least ten farms across England.

For more information about the project email me or phone 07790 378349, or you can contact your regional Knowledge Exchange Manager.

To apply to take part in the project visit the Challenge Sheep webpage, the deadline for applications is Monday 20 February.