ANALYSIS - Ruminant production has a vital role to play in global food security.
However, for livestock production to be sustainable it has to meet three essential targets - a societal need, an economic need and an environmental need according to Prof Michael Lee, Head of the North Wyke Site of Rothamsted Research, and chair in Sustainable Livestock Systems at University of Bristol.
Speaking at the annual conference of the UK’s Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board’s beef and lamb sector, Prof Lee said that sustainable production also had to meet the challenges of a growing population, increasing urbanisation and climate change.
At the same time, sustainable production and sustainability in grazing practices have to meet the needs of improving the health of consumers, be beneficial to society and also make a profit for the farmer.
He said that inevitably to achieve all these goals there will have to be trade-offs between the social, environmental and economic needs.
Prof Lee told the conference that the growing global population and increasing urbanisation is driving up demand for meat, but the growing urbanisation has also meant a drift away from rural areas and has produced a “brain-drain” of people away from producing food.
The growing demand for meat, he said, could be seen in the growth in demand in China, which has increased fifteen-fold between the 1960s and 2011.
He showed that there were different ways of raising livestock and producing meat according to the environmental and social conditions around the world and that through initiatives such as the Global Farm Platform, common ideals and goals have led a diverse group of scientists to create a vision of sustainable and responsible production of healthy food from healthy animals.
Prof Lee said that to produce meat and food sustainably, producers have to understand what the consumer wants and they have to differentiate their products from other production methods and put value into them.
However, while the majority of consumers claim to buy on quality, the true driver is price first and foremost, while also taking into account food safety, nutritional value, shelf-life and production methods.
He told the conference that the grazing methods and forage used can help to alter and improve the nutritional value of meat, by helping to increase the long chain polyunsaturated fats in meat and at the same time maintaining shelf-life.
Research being carried out at the North Wyke farm in Devon is looking at different grazing systems to understand how they can improve the nutritional quality of the meat particularly compared to concentrate feed and at the same time increase the shelf-life of the product that is reduced by a greater presence of long chain ‘pufas’.
The research is also looking at ways of reducing methane emissions through grazing systems for livestock.
“Ruminants have been demonised for being methane producers,” Prof Lee said.
“They convert fibre that is not suitable for human consumption into a product that is suitable for human consumption by fermentation.”
However, he added that the more energy that can be put into the sward for grazing can help to reduce the methane.
He added that the research at the Wyke farm was also looking at ways in which different pasture, species could reduce the environmental impact and increase the nitrogen use efficiency.
Under grazing systems the soil organic matter improves and the structure of the land improves showing the importance of slurry and manure, and in terms of biodiversity grazing systems can increase the invertebrate biomass.
“Grazing systems can deliver the societal need and the environmental need,” Prof Lee said.
Prof Lee added that from an economic viewpoint, a robust forage based system can also deliver a better return to the farmer in terms of both milk yield and beef quality that a single high yielding dairy system with poor beef quality and returns.
“Grazing can deliver economic, environmental and societal benefits but you have to consider the trade-offs,” he said.
He said that aspects of weight gain, number of animals per hectare, nutrients per hectare, greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient losses into water courses and costs of production between high input high yielding and robust systems of production all have to be taken into consideration.
Grassland systems can be designed and managed to deliver optimal sustainable production per unit area, whilst minimising negative impacts on other ecosystem services, he concluded.
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