Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Sheep farming in New Zealand: a UK view

In the second instalment of our New Zealand blog, EBLEX/AHDB senior analyst Paul Heyhoe reflects on the fact-finding visit.

Having been back from New Zealand for a week, I’ve had chance to digest what we saw there. During a whirlwind twelve-day trip, I can claim to have been to Los Angeles twice and never set foot outside the airport, as well as visiting Wellington, Christchurch, Invercargill, Dunedin, Napier, Auckland (airport) and many places in between. I can attest to the beautiful landscapes (seen through various plane and bus windows) and fantastic people. However a meeting room in New Zealand looks much like a meeting room in the UK (the same goes for hotel rooms).

Considering we went to see the New Zealand sheep sector, we spent a lot of time talking about China and dairy farming. This really highlighted the fact that we operate in a global climate and the main competition for sheep farming in any country isn’t other sheep industries, but alternative land uses and other proteins.

The other thing that really struck me was the focus the New Zealand sheep industry places on genetics. This was amply demonstrated by the Beef + Lamb New Zealand Sheep Industry Awards, where the categories included prizes for genetic traits such as Facial Eczema Tolerance and Internal Parasite Resistance. The next day a trip to a research farm, run by AgResearch, further reinforced the importance placed on genetics and research, as well as my lack of understanding of this complex subject!

Paul Heyhoe (left) on the fact-finding mission to New Zealand

However, as an analyst, it was the insight into market trends that really captured my interest. The world has a huge appetite for sheep meat and, going forward, imported sheep meat will be in demand from a growing number of developing economies. The rise of China has been the big story in recent years, but there remains huge potential elsewhere. Brazil and India are both now open for New Zealand sheep meat and Indonesia is also expected to show some considerable growth. This isn’t a quick process and many years and considerable sums of New Zealand dollars have been invested in trade development – a worthwhile lesson in reaping what you sow.

As these markets grow and develop, the reliance on Europe (and the UK in particular) for leg sales should ease. The UK currently takes approximately 40% of New Zealand legs, but it is envisioned that this will fall to below 10% in the future. EU quota fulfilment is no longer an issue and usage is unlikely to be 100% ever again, but there remains some debate over how this quota is made up and the impact of chilled cuts on the European and UK markets. Overall, it is safe to say the European lamb market is not considered a growth area for New Zealand.

In the short term, New Zealand sheep meat supplies will remain tight – the latest projections are for a lamb kill of 18.6 million head in 2013/14, down 1.7 million head on the previous season. Long term sheep meat production is unlikely to recover significantly as dairy conversions continue. Even if dairying becomes less attractive, the capital invested means that converting back is not possible.

This tightness of supply, combined with strong demand growth is expected to put sheep producers globally in a better position. Having spoken to lamb processors, countless farmers and our New Zealand Beef + Lamb counterparts among others, it is apparent that, despite the many challenges, there is much to be positive about in the global sheep industry.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Life as an EBLEX beef and sheep scientist

Dylan Laws blogs on the far reaching role of life as an EBLEX beef and sheep scientist.

As an EBLEX beef and sheep scientist, our work goes far beyond managing research and development projects.

Not only do we pull together information for up and coming Better Returns Programme documents and develop ideas for new projects, but we also constantly think about what’s going on outside and how it will affect the industry in the short, medium and long term.

This time last year all thoughts were on the rain. When will it stop? How will this effect grass growth, winter feed supplies and bedding? What about fluke?  What do beef and sheep farmers have to know, need to know and want to know?

This year sees some similar problems arising:

·         Silage quality seems good, but yields are not great and there will still be shortages in the New Year.
·         Early yields of winter barley look promising and are closer or better than five-year averages which may help with feed shortages and finisher margins
·         Are ewes going to be in the right condition at tupping?
·         Will rams be fit for purpose at this year’s sales?
·         How early will cows have to be housed this year and for how long?

So it is a welcome distraction when the first round of the sire linkage programme (SLP) comes to an end and a new set of rams can be added the list. 

The SLP is one of the ongoing genetics projects that EBLEX runs. The project has been developed to offer breeds and breeders the opportunity to increase genetic linkage between flocks and strengthen the accuracy of estimated breeding values (EBVs).

Every year sheep breeders are given two opportunities in June and September to nominate rams. The candidates from the ram put forward are then selected to join the SLP. Semen from these rams is then made available free of charge to breeders who wish to use it to increase their genetic linkage.

The end of the first round sees a very good Hampshire ram and one of the highest indexed Texel stock rams in the breed join the scheme. The bar has been set for the next round which will open in September.

The end of this month also sees the closing dates for the EBLEX bull surveys. The surveys were developed to improve our understanding of the production systems of bull breeders and what commercial beef producers look for when buying a bull. The information gathered will help develop a new ‘Fit for Purpose Bulls’ BRP manual which will be released in the New Year.

To complete one of the surveys please follow the links below

Pedigree bull breeders:

Commercial beef or suckler producers:

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Sheep farming in New Zealand: a UK view

In the first of two instalments, EBLEX Industry Development Manager Chris Lloyd blogs from New Zealand where he is currently on a fact-finding visit with a delegation from the UK sheep sector

After a seemingly never-ending flight, we arrived in Wellington on a beautiful mild spring day to discover that New Zealand’s North Island was enjoying 'Sprinter', with low rainfall, and higher-than-average winter temperatures encouraging good grass covers. Given everything is out-wintered here, that would seem a blessing, but with the goal being to clear pastures of old grass ready for spring, it appears to have been somewhat of an annoyance.

Our second day here was spent driving an hour and a half east of Wellington to meet a group of Wairarapa farmers to chat about common issues. As always when meeting farmers, you find a warm and friendly welcome. It brought home that it was not just UK farmers who suffered the price troughs experienced last winter. Discounted NZ lamb and low farmgate prices hit hard in the Southern Hemisphere also, while the worst drought for many years added to some of the marketing problems.

We had an interesting discussion about the pressures faced by their processors/exporters who can often operate largely on borrowed capital to buy lambs. With a large percentage of these frozen for sale at appropriate times in the season, the length of time before they get paid averages 114 days. That's a vulnerable period to cover with borrowed money if prices or exchange rates shift against you.   

Our trip isn't really focused on technical production issues, so we are visiting only a few farms, but we did see what will be the first of this season’s new lambs. However, we were surprised to find large numbers of old season lambs also, all shorn and finishing on grass and legumes (chicory and plantain), and with many heading close to 12 months of age.

One of the key aims of the visit is to explore the shared challenges and opportunities the UK and New Zealand sheep industries face – and one of those opportunities is definitely China. While we are still working on market access, New Zealand exporters are now able to start selling into mainland China and it is enlightening to hear how highly Beef and Lamb New Zealand, plus their exporters, rate the potential for the Chinese market to grow both in terms of value and volume. A growing affluent element of the population has disposable income and a desire for Western tastes, which include lamb cuts beyond the traditional cheap cuts and casseroles.

A meeting with a major processor and exporter gave a fascinating insight into how the alternative harvesting of bits from sheep have uses in the medical industry, as well as other non-food markets. The New Zealand government doesn't support many things financially, but it does encourage research if match funding is available. In this arena, as well as production related research, there are a number of commercial interests which participate in consortiums and input funding. They see the value of new technology and implementing new ideas and innovation. Is this something that we could look at more in the UK?

Many discussions though remain dominated by the impact of land conversion to dairy farming and its effect on the future of the lamb industry here. For every hectare used for dairy farming, there is a further 0.6ha of land required for dairy support, namely for rearing heifers. Returns from milk production far outstrip lamb production, so no one would be surprised to see the NZ lamb industry continue to decline in size.

It’s dangerous to draw sweeping conclusions from snapshots of a visit, but already it is proving an interesting comparison to my previous summer visits to this beautiful country. 

(Part two of this blog will be posted in two weeks’ time)

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Is lab-bred “meat” really the end of livestock farming?

It had been hailed in some quarters as the answer to our food security prayers. Real meat, grown in a lab. It will mean we can pack up farming livestock, apart from the lucky few animals kept organically so we can extract stem cells from them for breeding/growing more cells. That’s better for the environment, better for the animals and better for us.

Some pressure groups were quick to hail this as a major breakthrough ahead of the official first testing in a staged event earlier this week. Then we saw the product being cooked and tasted. People then really started to think about the claims and are perhaps having second thoughts about adding it to their menus, judging by the tone of much of the coverage in the media.

There is no doubt the technology and expertise demonstrated by this research is astounding. The case for doing the research appears sound as well, if you take the figures quoted at face value:

“Right now, we are using 70 per cent of all our agricultural capacity to grow meat through livestock.”

“Livestock create 18 per cent of all global greenhouse gas emissions.”

However, look a little closer and the figures perhaps start to look less commanding. In the UK, 64% of agricultural land cannot be used for cropping. Therefore, grazing livestock make efficient and sustainable use of that land to produce food we can eat. They effectively manage the countryside and help preserve our landscape. This also means that grain and other concentrates used to feed cattle in the UK is minimal compared to other countries. It is perhaps better to match production of foods to where on the planet they can be produced most efficiently and sustainably, rather than outlaw them outright. For beef, that would be the UK.

The oft-quoted 18 per cent figure comes from the Livestock’s Long Shadow report from the FAO, the food and agriculture organisation of the United Nations, in 2006. Some of the work in the research on livestock, in particular the direct comparison to the environmental impact of transport, has now been debunked by the scientists who did the work. A revised report is due out soon and is likely to see that figure drastically reduced. In the EU, a Joint Research Council report in 2011 put the figure at 9.2 per cent of all emissions, In the UK, the figure may be closer to seven per cent. This certainly puts things in a different light.

That is not to say we are not working hard to reduce environmental impact. We are, but these changes with animals take time, through better breeding, improved grassland management and different husbandry techniques. We cannot simply flick a switch to insert a catalytic converter as you could do with a vehicle. Calling for an end to livestock production to solve all the ills of climate change seems a bit of an over-reaction with no absolute proof of the level of its effectiveness. We will  still need to produce food to fill the void left and every food production enterprise has a carbon footprint,  particularly if it has spent years being produced in a laboratory.

Then there is the nutritional side to this so-called Frankenburger.  Beef is nutrient dense with vitamins and amino acids, and is rich in iron. There is no suggestion the lab-bred “meat” has these benefits. Any move away from the current consumption of meat in the UK diet – which falls within levels recommended by the Government – may have adverse health effects as these essential nutrients are removed and not easily found in this concentration in other foods.

Should we mention taste? The lab-grown burger has little, according to those who have tried it, so why would people eat it even if it was commercially available – though at £250,000 for one burger, easy and affordable access to the product still seems a long way off.

And the yuck factor? Grown in a lab with a host of additives to make it the right colour, hold it together etc (including plasma from unborn cattle, it has been reported). This seems to be pointing to intensive processed food production, something many pressure groups argue we need to move away from.

So while this breakthrough
is incredibly clever and something to watch with interest, claims that it is a replacement for livestock farming are premature at best. It remains a pale imitation of the real thing with credentials far from proven.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

French lessons in lucerne production

Alternative forages have risen up the farming agenda in the UK over recent years, as the unpredictable weather has made grass shortages a reality and has given producers the impetus to investigate what other forage options are available.

It was with this in mind that a group of nine English grassland farmers, together with forage experts from EBLEX, DairyCo and British Seed Houses, set off from Stansted to visit the Poitou-Charentes region of France last week to explore the potential of lucerne, on a study tour organised by EBLEX and part-funded by the Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE).

Lucerne, also known as alfalfa, is the most popular forage crop in the world and is grown on 30 million hectares of land from Siberia to South Africa, with 64% of total production taking place in North and South America. A legume which is known for its high yield, good nutritional value and drought-resistant properties, lucerne was grown in significant quantities in the UK until the middle of the 20th Century, but then went out of favour, primarily due to difficulties in establishing the crop in its first year and the advent of cheap nitrogen.

Across the Channel, where climatic conditions are arguably more suited to growing lucerne, it was a similar story. With lucerne production peaking in France between 1950 and 1970, it then fell away before enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. 300,000 hectares are now grown across France, compared with 20,000 hectares in the UK, although this figure is subject to debate. Most of the farmers on the study tour were already growing lucerne and were keen to get tips on how to improve the performance of the crop on their farm.

Arriving at the tiny airport in Poitiers on a flight full of holidaymakers, the group were met by representatives of Jouffray-Drillaud seed houses, who had organised visits to a number of farms around Poitou-Charentes, which is one of the biggest lucerne-producing regions of France.

The French farms, which mainly reared either dairy cattle or dairy goats, as well as producing fields of waving sunflowers and towering maize, seemed a world away from the predominantly grassland farms run by those on the study tour. However, farming is an international language, and the English producers were able to quiz their French counterparts in detail about their production systems and particularly their use of lucerne, thanks to the admirable translation skills of Jérôme Vasseur, Jouffray-Drillaud’s export manager. 

After visiting five farms, as well as Jouffray-Drillaud’s own breeding facility, the group had taken copious notes and numerous photos, and had plenty of ideas of how they could improve their use of lucerne on their own farms.

From an EBLEX perspective, the next step is to communicate the technical messages learnt during the trip to a wider farming audience. Lucerne isn’t suitable for every farm, as it doesn’t grow well in wet soils, but EBLEX livestock scientist, Liz Genever, estimates that there is easily the potential to double or treble lucerne production in the UK. Hopefully by providing practical advice to farmers on how best to grow and utilise this crop, more will have the confidence to trial it on their farm.