Sustainable Grassland Agriculture
Grasslands cover approximately 25% of the terrestrial Earth surface (3.5 billion ha). Their role is multifunctional, providing both primary feed for forage-based livestock systems, whilst also providing additional ecosystem services, including storing carbon reserves, water management and wildlife habitat. Current livestock systems occupy globally about one third of available agricultural lands and contribute 40% of global agricultural output value (FAO, 2019). Globally, livestock production systems provide one third of the protein consumed by humans, with projected increasing demands for animal products due to population growth and increasing consumption per capita. Balancing increasing livestock production against increasing consumer demands to understand the impact of livestock products on the environment requires scientific innovation at a rate previously unprecedented in history as we strive to achieve the UK’s ambition of net zero carbon by 2050.
Greenhouse Gas Reduction in Livestock Agriculture
Forage-based livestock production provides many economic and human health benefits, and rearing livestock in areas unsuitable for cultivation of crops offers additional food security while avoiding conflicts associated with the use of high-quality land to produce animal feed. However, ruminant agriculture contributes significantly to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, with direct outputs of methane from enteric fermentation and indirect outputs of nitrous oxide from inefficiencies in the use of fertiliser and feed nitrogen use. Approximately 14.5 % of global anthropogenic GHG emissions come from livestock agriculture, and about 65% of that comes from cattle (meat and milk) production. The UK has committed to a net zero GHG emissions target by 2050, so measuring, understanding, and reducing GHG emissions from UK agriculture is a critical element of our work to help the UK economy.
IBERS recently led a consortium of organisations in Defra’s GHG Platform project (AC0115), which generated novel livestock data for the improvement of the UK’s GHG agricultural methane emissions inventory reporting commitments. Livestock breeding plays an important long-term role in reductions of GHG emissions, although changes in animal nutrition can achieve significant gains more quickly and easily using appropriate dietary manipulation of existing animals.
Our aim is to enhance the sustainability of pasture-based livestock agriculture to help deliver net-zero livestock systems by 2050. By encapsulating a whole farm systems approach in our vision, livestock scientists work closely with plant breeders, soil scientists, microbiologists, ecologists and social scientists to deliver productive and resilient agri-food systems. Linking to numerous industry partners from across agricultural supply chains, our impact model utilises a participatory-farmer research approach, to provide insights on barriers to change and the science needed by the industry, to support the adoption of innovation by end-users.
We will help to reduce GHG emissions from ruminant livestock through improved animal nutrition by supplying improved feeds that better meet productive animal requirements, and to optimise feed utilisation to minimise pollutant output. This involves a combination of strategies, including improvements in ration formulation (feed requirements) to manipulation and replacement of key dietary components (feed supply) that help reduce the environmental impact of animal agriculture. Through integrating the use of the latest varieties of forage plants and increased understanding of animal biology, we are working towards reducing the GHG emissions intensity of livestock production (grams of carbon dioxide equivalents per kg of product; meat and milk) and ultimately reduce total GHG emissions from livestock agriculture, leading to a net zero future.
Our research remit includes:
- Net zero carbon grassland-based ruminant systems, including upland grasslands
- Home-grown high protein feed for ruminants and monogastrics
- Reducing GHG emissions from ruminants
- Soil protection and ecosystem services in livestock systems
- Knowledge exchange and implementing change in grassland agriculture
- Nutrient use efficiency via soil-plant-animal interactions
- Agriculture 4.0 and precision technologies, including innovation in silage technology
- Developing novel agri-food products and improving livestock product quality
At IBERS, we have the unique ability to develop novel plant resources to meet global demands for livestock systems that are sustainable, productive and resilient to the impacts of climate change.
We are taking a multi-level approach to the investigation of methane and waste nitrogen emissions from using small scale lab-based methods (gas production), analysis of diets and dietary treatments in individual animals, through to farm-scale assessments and modelling. Our work covers sheep and cattle, investigating all stages of the animal’s life from birth to product (meat and milk). We measure methane emissions from cattle and sheep, using respiration chambers, the sulphur hexafluoride technique, and GreenFeed® methane analysers, allowing us to determine emissions in all types of environment – housing to hillside. Understanding nutrient intake is critical to understanding GHG emissions, and we have facilities for measuring feed intakes of individual animals both manually and automatically using Insentec RIC Feeders (beef and dairy cows) and Calan Gates (sheep). We have capabilities to complete detailed metabolic studies, leading to more efficient use of feed and fine-tuning of genetics to produce ruminant food products efficiently with the least environmental impact. We are working with the UK Agritech Centre CIEL: Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock, to provide the Small Ruminant Research Platform (https://www.cielivestock.co.uk/beefandsheepcapability/). These methods are being used to test dietary modifications and direct the outputs of our plant breeding activities, which include forages, pulses and cereals, that aim to develop livestock feeds that better meet animal requirements and make more efficient use of diet nutrients.
Outputs and Capabilities
Impact Case Studies for REF ‘Reducing reliance on imported protein (soya) across a UK ruminant supply chain’
Key Research Insights
We aspire to increase our fundamental understanding of plant and ruminant biology, particularly where the two meet – when animals eat plants and digest them with the help of rumen microbes.
Livestock nutrition work has capitalised on plant breeding activities at IBERS to achieve significant improvements in the use of forage grasses with increased water-soluble carbohydrate (sugar) content. Feeding high-sugar grasses has improved milk production in dairy cows and significantly improved the efficiency of diet nitrogen use by allowing improved use of feed nutrients in the rumen.
Internationally, we are working with plant breeders in South America to develop tropical forages that improve the productivity of growing beef cattle, allowing an increase in stocking rates compared to conventional grazing pastures, and enabling land to be spared for alternative uses such as reforestation.
We are working with European partners to develop ration formulation models that allow us to accurately feed dairy cows with lower inputs of feed protein, increasing diet nitrogen use efficiency and reducing nitrogen excretion outputs.
Current Projects / Grants
- Advancing sustainable forage-based livestock production systems in Colombia (CoForLife). Newton Fund via BBSRC, 2019-2021. With University of Glasgow and CIAT. https://colombiagrasslands.com/
- CowficieNcy - an EU Marie Sklodowska-Curie RISE programme to improve cattle N use efficiency, with partners in the EU and the US. 2018-2022. http://www.cowficiency.org/
- PeaGen - a BBSRC-funded LINK project breeding and using novel peas for sustainable livestock production https://www.pgro.org/peagen-project/
- Capturing effects of diet on emissions from ruminant systems (CEDERS). ERA-NET ERA-GAS, UK funding from Defra. With Reading University and European partners. https://www.eragas.eu/en/eragas/Research-projects/CEDERS-1.htm