Farm Lab adds ‘High Tech Sheep Shed’

The new Robert Orr Small Ruminant Facility will bolster research into the sustainability of livestock.

A new high-tech ‘sheep shed’ has been unveiled which will allow Rothamsted researchers to monitor the impacts of livestock in real-world farming systems.

The new facility, which can also accommodate goats, is part of Rothamsted’s ‘farm lab’at its North Wyke site near Okehampton, Devon, where it measures how sustainable different farming methods are.
It will help scientists study different ways of rearing and producing lamb – and examine whether a switch away from red meat is good for the environment in the UK.

The ‘farm lab’ or Farm Platform is in fact three self-contained farms where every relevant input such as fertiliser and manpower, and all key outputs including pollutants in water runoff from fields, greenhouse gases and, ultimately profits, are monitored.

The Robert Orr Small Ruminant Facility will become an integral part of the Farm Platform and will house 400 or more ewes and up to 60 goats, with group and single pen facilities for feeding and behavioural research trials, including 24 automatic feeding pens.

It will keep the flocks reared on the different farming systems separate over winter to fully examine and compare the environmental and efficiency benefits of each.

It will do this by allowing researchers to measure the nutrients taken in, animal growth, urine and faeces produced, and the greenhouse gases being emitted by the sheep, individually or in groups, during housing.

Professor Michael Lee, head of the North Wyke site, said agricultural research often focused on individual animals or field-scale trials, and it was not always easy to extrapolate that up to the level of the farm.

All the research we do, the leading stakeholder is the farmer, to help them improve their productivity, sustainability, reduce emissions and improve efficiency generally. Instead of doing that at a field or animal scale, let’s do that at a farm scale.

Professor Michael Lee, Rothamsted Research

For four years, the three farming systems tested have been permanent pasture which uses fertiliser, a quasi-organic system which relies on natural nutrients such as manure, and a short-term lay system which sees farmers ploughing and sowing grass crops for feed.

“There’s been a lot of press about the detrimental impact of grazing livestock on the environment,” says Prof Lee, but there was no real evidence on the impact of removing ruminants such as sheep and cattle from the food chain.

“We want to run these experiments so we can have enough data to show the true impacts,” Professor Lee said.

He added that the idea was to look at if it was possible to develop a system which utilises the natural benefits of grazing animals such as cattle and sheep for food security.

Investment by CIEL through Innovate UK funding has supported the development of The Robert Orr ruminant facility, allowing complete separation of farm platform’s three research flocks, but also as a research facility in its own right.

It’s exciting to see the Robert Orr sheep facility come to fruition. Its versatility, together with the expertise of the North Wyke team, make it ideal for supporting a broad range of projects across health, welfare, nutrition and behaviour. The combined capability across our partners with sheep facilities – including Aberystwyth University, AFBI and SRUC – is extensive and available for industry to use to help answer the challenges facing the sheep sector.

Lyndsay Chapman, CEO of CIEL

The facility is capable of developing tailor made research trials to address industry needs. These include:

  • Effect of various forage types and protein supplements on the performance of ewes during pregnancy and early lactation.
  • The effect of supplemental minerals on the performance of ewes and lambs.
  • The effects of sire breed on lamb performance and carcass quality.
  • Effect of feed supplements on the health and wellbeing of ewes, and potential impact on ecto-parasites.
  • The fate of water during rumen metabolism in goats and sheep.

The facility can also play host to farmer groups interested in sheep production systems and as a tool to demonstrate recent research findings to help improve on-farm management.

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