Professor Jamie Newbold, director of research and enterprise at the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Research (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, believes that ruminant feed research can address the big social and environmental challenges of the next few years.
Speaking at an event last week organised by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) which funds applied collaborative R&D, Professor Newbold said that grass breeding and research into the inner workings of the rumen will:
a) help produce enough food to meet the demands of the growing global population
b) improve human health
c) reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
He said that demand for land for human food production means we cannot go on feeding ruminants as we currently do. Rather they must eat what humans cannot digest, such as grass and fibrous forage feeds. And farmers must also get better at utilising the pasture that so readily grows here in the UK.
Reduce NHS costs?
It is well-known that pasture-fed animals contain more of the ‘healthier’ fatty acids than grain-fed ones. Now more work is needed to find ways of getting more of these good fats that can protect against cancer and heart disease, into human food. By doing so, plant breeders really could play a part in reducing future demands on the NHS.
The final challenge will see ruminant research finding ways to reduce the harmful emissions that come so freely out of the front and back end of cattle and sheep.
Initially, innovations at farm level could go some way to reducing these. The most efficient farmers who use the latest animal and plant genetics, have fertile stock and good disease control, can decrease the number of animals needed to produce each kg of meat or milk, thereby reducing overall emissions.
Science is already helping here – for example the use of High Sugar Grasses bred at Aberystwyth can reduce methane production in lambs by 20%, while increasing meat output.
The researchers have also proved that feeding plant extracts like garlic can switch off the methane producing bugs in the rumen. It definitely works – but as yet, not everyone wants to drink garlic flavoured milk! So the research continues…