“I think as challenging and uncertain as things are for farmers at the moment, these times are equally exciting and full of possibility,” comments livestock farmer and NFU vice-president David Exwood.
David will be giving a keynote presentation at the 2023 Agri-TechE REAP Conference, ‘Adaptation Through Innovation; Beyond the Comfort Zone’. He will speak alongside Defra Chief Scientist Professor Gideon Henderson.
Trying to farm profitably and do the right thing
David comments that while farmers are open to science, there are many sources of information and a lack of clarity from government and the supply chain on how to achieve targets.
“If a farmer asks the question ‘what is the right thing to do for net zero, biodiversity and climate?’ you could get a hundred different answers. Trying to farm profitably while doing the right thing in all those directions – well that is the challenge. We can do it, but it’s not easy.”
Circular farming systems are the future
With his wife and sons, David farms over 1,200 tenanted hectares in the heart of the Sussex Weald. The business has arable, dairy beef, Sussex suckler herd and sheep enterprises.
Although grazing has helped shape the British countryside, intensive livestock farming with a reliance on bought-in feed and concentrated manure production is still a major cause of greenhouse emissions. David comments that there is a lot of noise around livestock farming and the role of meat in the diet.
“We have been the problem for many years, but we are starting to turn a corner where we are the solution. I would say that anyone looking at any kind of circular farming system would understand the value of livestock and would be really positive about what this means for biodiversity in the landscape.
“We can deliver all the things that people want to see, but we’ve got to make sure that farmers are recognised for that, and they get the value. I actually think we’ve got a great story to tell.”
David was one of the first to use Breedr’s ‘precision beef’ application, to improve the consistency of his delivered product. It is based on science from Rothamsted Research that showed there is a point of ‘peak production’, after which additional feed is converted to fat and methane emissions increase. Breedr helps farmers to gauge that point for individual animals and to trade their ‘digital twins’ in an online market.
David continues: “Feeding livestock is complex, especially when you are supplementing grazing. Understanding how your cattle are growing, how starch from grass is being turned into meat, the amount of protein and fat on the carcass, the time taken to do that, and the return you’re getting for every kilo you’re putting into them is really important. Technologies, like Breedr, which is brilliant, enable us to break down this challenge into the things we need to do and to see how it can be done better.
“I think there are two things there. It’s about a consistent deliverable product, which has a value to the supply chain, but also creating the data to prove the value of what you are doing. So, when a customer, a processor or retailer, says to a farmer ‘what are you doing for the environment or for sustainability?’ you can codify it in a way we haven’t been able to in the past.”
Shopping list for REAP
Looking ahead to REAP and the discussion of agri-tech David is particularly interested in hearing about technologies that will improve resilience to extremes.
“As technology gets cheaper and more widely available a whole range of possibilities opens up. Livestock produces nutrients in the form of manure, which is often seen as a waste and a pollutant, but we can turn that into sustainable fertilizer through better use of technology.
“I think herbal leys and different grazing systems that will use less fertilizer and can cope with more extreme weather are vital. To support this, GPS collars could be a novel way to graze sensitive areas or to feed them more sustainably.
“Then finally, obviously, is robots. Robotic feeders and milkers could be rolled out further.
“All this would help to make us more resilient and to keep profitable, and crucially, to be truly sustainable in terms of climate and the environment and changing weather.
“We need to turn the clock forward, not back, and I firmly believe that better use of technology is the answer here.”
Wednesday 8th November, 9:30 am – 6:30 pm
Rowley Mile Conference Centre, Newmarket
Surviving and thriving under increasingly extreme and unpredictable challenges is the theme of the 2023 REAP conference. To build a productive, profitable and sustainable agri-food industry, we must move away from the comfort zone and become open to the new opportunities that exist when we ‘stretch’. Be a part of that future – bring yourself and your ideas to REAP.