Sunday, 25 November 2012

Starting My Nuffield Study

Well, what can I say and where do I start?
On Thursday last week Andrea and I headed to the Stratford Manor Hotel to begin my first ever Nuffield briefing and conference.  We were met by 21 other 2013 Scholars (and partners) all about to begin the next two years of International study and what an electric atmosphere there was in that room. There were people there from all over the country; from Scotland, Cornwall, Kent and everywhere else in between, all with one thing in common.  They (we) all share a passion for their farming sector, a desire to improve our industry and to grow and develop themselves. In the words of the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust who's mission is.....
"Leading positive change in agriculture, inspiring passion and potential in people"
Following on from Thursday evening, a lovely dinner at the Heritage Motor Museum, we started the conference bright and early on Friday.  There were some fascinating topics all very professionally presented by the 2011 scholars.  A lot to live up to!  Topics included, top fruit competitiveness, creating national niche' products, family farm succession, managing larger dairy units and maximising timber value from UK woodlands, among others.  After a short break we were all presented with our Nuffield ties, for the guys and brooches for the girls, by Peter Kendall (NFU President).  Here is the picture of  Tanya Robbins from Grafton (next door farm to me at Overbury) me and Jane Currill (far left-secretary of the Central Region Farmers Trust), with Stephen Watkins and Peter Kendall.  The CRFT is one of many of the trusts that actually put up the sponsorship money to enable the scholars to travel and study.  I think I am the 7th or 8th scholar they have sponsored and for this opportunity I am very grateful, so thank you.
The annual dinner followed the awards later in the evening and my name was first out of the hat for the raffle, so I picked out a pedal tractor from Chris Tallis Farm Machinery.  (Small world- but shhhh don't tell Jorja!).  The presentations resumed on Saturday morning, not so bright but early, a very inspiring line up of presentations.  These included, sustainable agriculture, soil fertility and fertiliser use efficiency, rebuilding soil carbon (Rob - fellow CRFT scholar), price risk management and grain supply chains. 
We met some very interesting people all at the top of their farming sectors and all willing to help and support, all you have to do is ask.  It was very uplifting, positive and alleviated some apprehension about what I had got myself into!.  Now for the next bit, my subject!  That's coming up in another blog but I'll leave you with a thought, 9billion people in the world how are we going to feed them?
I think I'm going to need to drive one of these to fit everything in, so hold onto your hats, keep following the blog and join me on my adventure of a lifetime!

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Soil and Water, Our Greatest Team?

What can I say, one of the most riveting conferences I have been to in a very long time, well done to the Royal Agricultural Society of England (RASE) for putting it all together.  Prof Tim Benton kicked off the Conference with a sobering overview of our climate and what we might experience in the future.  Considering the extremes of weather we've experienced in the last two years, his presentation was of little comfort!  In summary, more rainfall causing more issues with our soil (great!)  Our soils and farming systems need to be more resilient and more sustainable to deal with these changing weather systems.  What was once a 1 in 50 year event could soon become 1 in 5!  (hold onto your seats!)  Next up was Jean Spencer from Anglian Water, who with 6million customers, needs a constant supply of water.  A 25 year strategy is in  place to continue to reduce individual household water use, using meters, water re-use and recharging aquifers in periods of over supply.  Meurig Raymond spoke about the need to increase wheat supply by 60% in the next 40 years.  Currently the UK is 62% self sufficient but this could drop to less than 50% in the future.  He also stressed the need for more R&D into maintaining production as buying food on the world market may not always be possible in the future. Alan Wilson of Waitrose, spoke about the urbanisation of our customers, moving further from the knowledge of their food supply change, and how water is key to their sustainability plan, which is inextricably link to the soil.   We need to learn from drier countries when it comes to water use technology, Spain for instance has reduced water use in some produce by 50%. 
After a quick lunch it was onto the afternoon sessions, the first one I attended was titled 'Boosting Arable Soil Productivity".  Ron Stobart kicked off with the STAR project.  The project aims to have a long term study into arable rotations, and also the benefits of cover cropping on soil organic matter and fertility.  This theme was prevalent throughout the afternoon sessions that I attended.   Roberts Barnes, a Bedfordshire farmer, spoke about his experience of controlled traffic farming and how this method of farming can reduce costs, increase output as well as earthworms and soil organic matter.  Controlled Traffic Farming is something that I had quickly dismissed before, but maybe there is merit in the system, although potentially difficult to implement where vegetable crops form part of the rotation.
The next session was by Dr Eric Ober from Rothamsted, who enlightened us on the current research about wheat breeding, (right up my Nuffield Street). In 1888 the Rothamsted yield was 2T/Ha which is still the average world wheat yield today.  I also heard that the contribution to yield comes 50% from the genetics and 50% from husbandry.  There is also a need to develop new varieties for maintenance breeding.  This means that a variety looses its ability to yield due to environmental factors reducing its potential year on year, things like changing strains of fungi.
The final session was entitled Soil Biota - Harnessing the Earths Biological Engine and was taken by Karl Ritz (Professor of Soil Biology - Cranfield University) and was all about the interaction between soil microbes, nutrients and organic matter.  There was a practical element of putting the science into practise by Jo Franklin (Nuffield Scholar).  Jo's study took her around the world looking at the status of soils, building fertility and how organic matter can be introduced back into our soils.  This includes the use of livestock and their manure, of compost, cover crops and even treated sewage cake.  All these ingredients added to the soil help keep it aerated, healthy, staying in the field and delivering greater yields!
It really was a cracking lineup of speakers, the topic right on the pulse of the issues we are currently facing and those that we will be facing in the future.  I for one will be signing up to go again next year, if it is held, and I would strongly recommend other farmers to attend as there will be valuable lesions for us all to learn next year.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Sainsbury Lamb Group Meeting

On the 7th November I travelled down to West Wales for one of our Sainsbury's Lamb Development Group meetings.  It was a good trip down, heading to a town called Llandeilo just in time for dinner and a catch up with everyone before the meeting the following day.  As always there was a lot to talk about.  My thanks to Dunbia for putting us up and feeding us very well, care of The Plough (a good spot to stay if you are heading that way!)  In the morning we travelled the short distance to the very smart premises of Dunbia at Llanybydder where we started our meeting.
We heard from Sainsbury's about the slight upturn (5%) in lamb sales which is great news, with a predicted increase of 10% forecast for next year.  Driven by promotions at the moment this is still great news for the sheep industry and turns round a decline that has been prevalent for the past 4 years (at least).
We also had an update from Fiona Lovett from the EBVC on the flock health initiative.  So far she has visited 15 key suppliers of lamb into Sainsbury's.  The aim of the study is to investigate increased animal welfare and business support and also how this can be rolled out the rest of the farmers that supply JS.  In total over 15,000 ewes have been represented on 15 farms so far, not an insignificant number of sheep.  We also had an update on the carbon footprint initiative.  Did you realise that Australian farmers pay a carbon tax on their agriculture, last year it cost them $3.7bn!  As an industry we need to engage more and more with energy saving and monitoring to avoid a similar tax in the UK. We also need to look more closely at renewable energy and energy saving technologies.
We also had a very interesting discussion about the eating quality of UK lamb and what effects it.  This is important to JS as these qualities are what the customer will return for (or not if its poor)  We talked about the sex of the lamb, it's age, what it is fed on, maturation of the carcass, the amount of fat (not surprisingly visually customers buy leaner lamb, but in the taste tests everyone prefers a carcass with more fat, it's where the flavour is!), how it is cooked, and the price of the cut.  It really was a very interesting meeting.  We also spoke about the ratio between Omega 6 and 3 (the healthy ones), lamb has a very healthy ratio of 1:1 whereas pizza has a not so sparkling ratio of 1:17!
After a very delicious lunch of, guess what, lamb, we headed into the factory where the lamb carcasses are processed.  There was a display of the different cuts and packaging available in the different ranges, Basics, Taste the Difference and all the various options of bone in or out and different marinades.  We also looked at the difference in the carcass waste from lambs with different fat grades.  For instance the picture above on the right shows a 4L carcass which has 4Kg of extra lamb fat that needs to be removed.  This is waste to the system and can double the amount of time the lamb takes to be processed in the factory.  As a producer selling lamb onto the processor, in our case Randall Parker Foods, it really brings home the need to get the carcass quality right.  Over finishing (i.e. keeping the animal too long) costs more money, reduces the carbon footprint, eats more feed and potentially costs them more to process with greater inefficiencies further down the supply chain.