Healthy soil lifts animal weight
Press release issued: 17 April 2018
Managing soil by well-designed grazing is key to an animal's growth and wellbeing shows new research linking soil health, pasture value and sustainable production.
Individual pastures on livestock farms yield surprisingly dissimilar benefits to a farm's overall agricultural income, and those differences are most likely attributable to the varying levels of "soil health" provided by its grazing livestock, reveals a study published in the journal Animal.
The study, produced by an interdisciplinary team of 13 scientists and two PhD students from Rothamsted Research, Bristol Veterinary School and University of Exeter, evaluated how efficiently nutrients are used on a livestock farm, on a field-by-field basis for the first time, and links soil health to animal growth.
The team has developed a method to derive the contribution of individual fields to an animal's growth and, in the process, has opened up the possibility of using field-scale metrics as indicators of animal performance and agricultural productivity.
Dr Taro Takahashi, an agricultural economist at Rothamsted's North Wyke Farm Platform (NWFP) in Devon, and Senior Lecturer in Sustainable Livestock Systems and Food Security in Bristol Veterinary School at the University of Bristol, who led the study, said: "The prospect that commercial livestock producers could improve their productivity by purely changing rotational patterns is exciting. Unlike many alternative technologies, this will not require any capital investment."
The majority of livestock farms in the UK operate rotational grazing, which involves moving animals from one field to another. While this practice supplies more fresh forage to animals throughout the season, it makes farming systems more difficult to monitor and optimise.
The problem has been the difficulty of linking an animal's performance to field measurements, such as soil health, because animals spend only a fraction of time in each field, which is also used to produce silage for winter. Under such complexity, collating required information manually was almost infeasible. The latest method provides a shortcut.
The NWFP team found that animal performance on individual fields was positively associated with the level of soil organic carbon, a common measure of "soil health" for sustainable farming. The team also discovered that fields grazed more intensively had healthier soils and were less prone to water and nutrient losses.
Paul Harris, one of the study's authors and the principal envestigator at North Wyke, which consists of three instrumented farms over 63 hectares, noted: "Without our unique experimental design to separate hydrological flows from individual grazing fields, you couldn’t accurately quantify any nutrients being lost as the majority would be dissolved in water."
The new study comes as Rothamsted increases its efforts to contribute to the creation of a well-designed food supply chain, both through enhanced ecosystem services and reduced environmental impacts.
Michael Lee, Head of the Department of Sustainable Agriculture Sciences at North Wyke and Professor of Sustainable Livestock Systems at Bristol Veterinary School, added: "The correlation between soil health and animal performance is a major finding that confirms the huge amount of anecdotal evidence linking soil parameters and live weight gain.
"This study illustrates the multifaceted interactions between soil health, ecological surroundings and grazing animals that are so often overlooked in favour of more simplistic narratives."
NWFP is a UK National Capability, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; its facility and datasets are open to all researchers. This study was carried out as part of Soil to Nutrition, one of Rothamsted's five Institute Strategic Programmes, also supported by the BBSRC.
‘Roles of instrumented farm-scale trials in trade-off assessments of pasture-based ruminant production systems’ by Takahashi et al. in Animal [open access]
About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices. Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of its economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK exceeds £3000 million a year (Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence, by Séan Rickard, 2015). Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships. Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform. We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry.
About the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
BBSRC's vision is to lead world-class 21st century bioscience, promoting innovation in the bioeconomy and realising benefits for society within and beyond the UK. We invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support around 1600 scientists and 2000 research students in universities and institutes across the UK.