Improved and novel mixed farming systems for soil quality and sustainability

Posted on: 28/01/2020

Mixed farming can offer many benefits to both livestock and arable systems.

To ensure that the KTN’s agri-food team is working in the most relevant areas, three sector boards meet throughout the year, focusing on plants & crops, livestock & aquaculture and food. These boards help to determine the activities the team should focus on. They are driven by key industry players, academics and intermediate organisations (such as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board). The boards discuss key areas for innovation. Their expertise has been leveraged to produce community resources (e.g. ‘A Pre-Competitive Vision for the UK Plant and Crop Sector’ that defines clear priorities for the UK’s Plant and Crop sector).


The livestock & aquaculture and plants & crops boards recently met at Elsoms Seeds Ltd in Lincolnshire. They explored existing and potential joint opportunities. Identifying areas where collaboration could take place will help ensure sustainability for the industry in an environment where resilience is key to survival.


Discussions were centred around the need for sustainably produced protein crops for use in animal feed and mixed farming systems.


Lucy Mather, one of our agri-food Knowledge Transfer Manager, summarised the discussions around mixed farming systems.


The potential of mixed farming systems

Mixed farming can offer many benefits to both livestock and arable systems, where products surplus to requirement can be utilised that would otherwise have been wasted. Excess organic manure from livestock can be applied to soil growing arable crops and increase the quality of the soil, offering a natural source of nutrients. Crops that don’t achieve human consumption standards and straw can be utilised by livestock. The benefits to livestock and arable farmers working together are far reaching.  Collaboration would help to address issues such as improving soil quality, disease control in the soil for arable farmers, the provision of feed and bedding for livestock farmers, alongside further increasing sustainability throughout the whole production cycle.

Currently, livestock tends to be located in the West of the country, whilst arable enterprises are in the East.  This is largely dictated by the climate and more recently, the infrastructure of farms in these regions. However, this doesn’t mean that the running the two enterprises separately is the most efficient and sustainable model.  The introduction of grass leys into the arable rotation would help to improve soil quality and structure and could be extensively grazed by livestock. This method of farming offers many benefits to the environment, such as supporting biodiversity, which ultimately leads to healthier soils.


Innovation is addressing the skills gap 

Addressing the skills gap which hinders arable farmers having livestock on their holding is becoming less of a barrier as more technology becomes available.  The use of sensors in livestock farming is increasing rapidly with products that aid animal husbandry becoming more readily available. This is a great help for those newer to the industry and where tacit knowledge hasn’t been gained. Sensors use machine learning to track the normal behaviour of the animal and can therefore identify health and welfare issues early on, such as lameness. On the flip side, many more monitors and sensors are available to monitor soil quality and health for arable farming. This means that crops could be grown successfully on livestock farms, given the right cropping conditions.

Livestock and arable farms working in unison more frequently benefits both systems, with improvements seen in sustainability, efficiency and productivity. Technology and innovation makes this synergy easier and more efficient to manage.


Funding to support innovation in the sector

The current ISCF: Transforming Food Production funding calls will drive innovation in the agricultural industry through technologies which solve multiple problems. The calls are particularly looking for end-user engagement to ensure that technologies are developed to suit the market they are intended for.

If you would like support to apply for one of the ISCF: Transforming Food Production funding calls, please get in touch with the agri-food team here.

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