The beef research programme at AFBI Hillsborough has a key aim to lead improvements in the sustainability of the beef sector whilst enhancing the natural environment. These improvements span a variety of activities from management to nutrition through to the adoption of new technologies and the development of decision support tools. Collectively the programme aims to increase the profitability of beef production in a sustainable manner.
Recently the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) has commissioned two important new research projects which will start at the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, Hillsborough in the coming months.
The first of these projects focuses on the hills and uplands for beef and sheep farming and is called ‘HUBS’. Hills and uplands are largely designated as Severely Disadvantaged Areas (SDAs) which represents 44% of all farmed land in the Northern Ireland. These areas have potential to be an invaluable resource in our natural environment if properly managed; providing many important ecosystem services including climate regulation via carbon sequestration, flood mitigation, clean water and also educational and recreational opportunities. However if these areas are not properly managed they have potential to have a negative effect on the environment, such as reductions in water quality and biodiversity. Traditionally, grazing has been the predominant method of managing upland habitats, with cattle and sheep farms making up 90% of severely disadvantaged area (SDA) farm enterprises. This desk based project will focus on identifying natural capital solutions and will consider adaptations to farm management practices that will, whenever possible, also improve the productivity and resilience of the production system. These adaptations will include an assessment of native versus traditional cattle breeds and grazing systems of cattle and sheep.
This one year project is designed to develop a holistic research programme to take forward priority research for the hills and uplands, aligned with beef and sheep production. In doing so it will form a sound scientific basis to steer future projects in this very important area where agriculture and land management interacts so closely with the environment and societal benefits.
The second recently commissioned study from DAERA will explore trends in the trace element status of NI livestock over the last two decades and quantify relationships with weather, soil type and location. Trace element deficiencies have been identified in both livestock and humans and this project will monitor trace elements such as iodine and selenium from farm to fork, to identify levels in the soil, forage, in the animal and the resultant meat.
These two new projects add to a wide and varied beef research programme currently underway at AFBI Hillsborough.
One of the current main projects in the programme is working towards updating the nutritional models for beef cattle which will help producers and feed advisors improve the accuracy of ration formulation and therefore improve the nutritional design of dietary supplements to better support the efficient growth of beef cattle.
The research programme also remains heavily focused on maximising beef output from forage, and in particular grass. The ‘beef from grass’ research programme is currently investigating the use of multi species swards on animal and sward performance as well as identifying key managerial strategies for beef farmers to manage grassland platforms. These strategies include rotation length, weed control and both the anthelmintic and trace element management of the livestock.
Additionally a novel innovation currently being investigated for the grazing platform is that of virtual fencing. Virtual fencing aims to remotely map and control livestock grazing behaviour without the use of fixed fences but instead uses GPS sensors and wireless technologies. This emerging technology has the advantage for farmers to improve livestock and pasture management, whilst reducing labour and costs associated with fixed fences. However, the impact on animal welfare requires consideration and the work within AFBI will provide an insight to the advantages and potential unintended consequences when adopting this new technology.
The beef research programme also links to cross cutting initiatives within AFBI Hillsborough investigating strategies to reduce ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and the development of decision support tools for farmers, such as BovIS and Carbon Calculators. Farmer safety is also of key consideration within the programme and a novel study is currently underway to improve the understanding of how animal genetics can influence cattle temperament.
The above work is funded from a range of sources including, DAERA, AHDB, EU Horizon 2020 and AgriSearch and is working with a range of collaborators across the UK and Europe.
Overall the AFBI Hillsborough beef research programme aims to address key challenges for the local beef sector and through working with our partners, mainly AgriSearch and CAFRE, the programme engages with organisations across RoI, the UK and wider EU whilst also ensuring the findings are disseminated widely to local farmers and industry representatives.