Eight strategies to make cows, sheep and other cud-chewing, or ruminant, livestock a more sustainable part of the food supply are outlined by Rothamsted Research scientists in a Comment piece in Nature this week. The Comment was led by Mark Eisler and Michael Lee, University of Bristol UK and Graeme Martin, University of Western Australia, Perth.
Raising animals for milk and meat is often considered at odds with the challenge of feeding a growing human population, but there are health benefits to eating animal protein. Furthermore, cows, sheep and some other livestock can be fed grass and crop residues that humans cannot eat, the authors point out. “We must figure out how to keep livestock in ways that work best for individuals, communities and the planet,” say the authors.
Working to boost yields from local breeds makes more sense in the long term than importing breeds that are successful elsewhere, Eisler and colleagues write. For example, kept under controlled conditions and in temperate climates in Europe and North America, Holstein dairy cows can produce 30 litres of milk a day. Tens of thousands, at least, of these animals have been exported to Asia and Africa in attempts to alleviate malnutrition. But exposed to hot climates and tropical diseases, the cows produce much less milk, and require more expensive care and feeding than native breeds do.
Simple dietary supplements can help to boost productivity. These alter microbes in the rumen to improve animals’ nutrition, meaning that in some cases, animals can produce more milk and meat for proportionally less greenhouse gas.
Finally, the authors explain how a network of research farms — known as farm platforms, exemplified at Rothamsted Research, North Wyke, UK; Future Farm, Perth Australia, and Silent Valley, Kerala, India — is starting to evaluate economic and environmental benefits of these and other farming practices.
Professor John Crawford leads Rothamsted’s Sustainable Systems Strategic Programme, which is strategically funded by the BBSRC, and he said: “In order to answer questions about sustainability of agriculture, scientists are increasingly dependent on the too few remaining long-term research platforms around the world. This paper is a welcome reminder of the need for long-term strategic investment to secure future food supply.
Only by studying the behaviour of the whole production system, including total inputs, total outputs and its productivity over sufficiently long time can we eliminate unintended consequences such as intolerable levels of soil degradation, greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss.
North Wyke leads the way for next generation platforms capable of providing all the necessary data, and the global network ensures the widest possible translation of research into practice change”.
Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Executive Director, Science, said: “It’s great to see the benefits of BBSRC’s national capability funding being recognised in this way. North Wyke Farm Platform and the other BBSRC national capabilities are valuable resources for UK bioscience, helping world-class research take place to deliver economic and social benefits for all.”