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Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock

Casey Woodward of the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), explains the objectives of the Centre, how it has allocated initial grant funding and what the future looks like.

The Government’s Agri-Tech Strategy, launched in 2013, aims to improve and accelerate the translation of exciting (but often uncommercialised) research taking place in academic institutions into new products, services and techniques for the agri-food sector.

At the heart of the strategy sit four Agri-Tech Centres of Innovation, which aim to help foster more industry and academic partnerships to drive greater efficiency, wealth and resilience in agrifood supply chains and value for the UK taxpayer. Collectively, the Centres (Agrimetrics, Crop Health And Protection (CHAP), Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI Centre) and the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL)) have received over £90m to invest in demonstration/pilot-scale sites and new state-of-the-art facilities. They are beginning to help businesses across the UK to innovate and improve business practice across the supply chain from farms, through processors to retailers and consumers.

Half-way through delivery of the initial funding period for the Agri-Tech Centres, this article addresses how businesses can benefit more from collaborating with the Centres and what they have delivered to date.

CIEL: what is it and what does it do?

The Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL) was the largest recipient of funding from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, receiving almost £30m in late 2015 through the Government’s Innovation Agency, ‘Innovate UK’. To maximise the impact and reach of this investment, twelve academic partners came together and matched the government funding to create a total budget of almost £70m to improve the UK’s capacity for livestock related research. Collectively, CIEL forms the largest alliance of livestock researchers in Europe and acts as a central hub to access world-class research facilities and technical expertise.

Over 30 forward-thinking businesses have recognised the opportunity presented by CIEL to help them to grow through innovation. CIEL enables businesses to participate in collaborative R&D, taking advantage of new facilities and academic partnerships. Internal services, including project management and dissemination, are also available to members, which can be key in helping to secure grant funding. Delivered through an annual subscription model, members include SMEs, corporate businesses and trade/levy bodies who, via CIEL, participate in information exchange, sharing project ideas, technical expertise and business challenges within a confidential and knowledgeable environment.

Collectively, CIEL forms the largest alliance of livestock researchers in Europe and acts as a central hub to access world-class research facilities and technical expertise.

New animal research facilities for UK business

In 2015, an extensive review with the wider livestock sector was conducted to identify where research infrastructure was lacking, out-of-touch with industry or in need of development to meet emerging technological needs. Funding was allocated across five sectors: dairy, beef, sheep, poultry (broilers and laying hens) and pigs, with spend in underlying technologies including genetic assessment, advanced imaging, precision feeding, analytical tools and new animal housing.

Funding has enabled the development of multiple facilities – both small scale research sites and pilot study-scale facilities – representing an intermediary between small-scale, highly controlled units for undertaking fundamental research and full commercial scale operations. This is helping to address concerns that results from small scale trials do not scale up as expected. In addition, funding has enabled the scale up of the national research herds/flocks (total number of animals available for research purposes), increasing the UK’s capacity to compete on an international level. Due to their flexible structures, CIEL’s facilities enable collaborative R&D across a wide range of challenge areas for livestock production. These ‘Grand Challenges’ include:

•  Anti-microbial resistance (AMR) and gut health

•  Controlling foodborne pathogens

•  Reducing the Impact of endemic diseases

•  Improving resource efficiency

•  Maintaining & improving product quality.

•  Managing environmental & economic sustainability.

Construction work began in 2015, with the first new facility (Outdoor Pig Research Farm with University of Leeds) commissioned in 2016. Since then, over 20 new facilities have been commissioned or upgraded, with the expectation that they will be used by businesses (CIEL and non-CIEL members) or research groups.

Dairy

With over 98% of British households regularly consuming dairy products, the development of new tools to support milk production is essential for supply chain resilience. Similarly, global volatility in market prices means that targeted R&D provides solutions for farmers and processors to improve the efficiency (and therefore profitability) of dairy farming.

CIEL investment in world-class dairy facilities will be at three sites: University of Nottingham, Duchy College and Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI) in Belfast. Each site offers complementary research capacity (health, nutrition and performance), based on academic and wider institutional expertise, to meet differences in production systems, or to gain greater engagement with dairy farmers/end-users groups.

At Nottingham, the Centre for Dairy Science Innovation (C-DSI) is a commercial dairying system designed to facilitate targeted research into health, welfare and nutrition using flexible pens for comparative studies. Robotic milking and online monitoring alongside a more conventional rotary milking parlour offers the opportunity to focus on improving cow health and welfare while capturing environment and milk quality data. Similar technology will be employed at Duchy College, where the focus is more on economic evaluation and knowledge exchange through development of their Dairy Farm 2050 to benefit farmers and dairy processors.

In a move away from intensive systems, CIEL investment at AFBI promotes research capability for more extensive pastoral systems. Electronic ‘Precision Feed’ stations enable researchers to control individual feed intake for adult cattle and youngstock, working in combination with grass measurement tools. The aim is to better manage pasture and animal feed intake efficiently for dairy cattle. Collectively, the data captured enables farmers to make better informed decisions for cattle in pastoral systems.

One area of expertise is animal biomechanics, with investment in a state-of-the- art animal gait laboratory.

Beef & sheep

UK beef and sheep production faces multiple challenges. Changes to farm payment systems, along with fragmented supply chains, price fluctuations and production systems lacking the investment in new technologies means that beef and sheep farms are more vulnerable than other forms of livestock farming.  It is expected that a stronger focus on costs of production will be needed to increase the profitability and competitiveness of many farms.

Funding has been allocated to support productivity leaps for beef and sheep sectors. Aberystwyth University (sheep), AFBI (beef & sheep), Harper Adams University (beef), Scotland’s Rural College or SRUC (beef & sheep) and Rothamsted Research (beef & sheep) have all jointly invested with CIEL to fund a diverse portfolio of research tools for innovation activity.

Improving nutritional efficiency, considered crucial for meat production, is a key theme for investment for both beef and sheep. As for dairy cattle, ‘Precision Feed’ stations at AFBI measure feed and water consumption for beef providing rich data about feeding behaviour, gut health changes and feed conversion studies. At Harper Adams University, the Beef Grower-Finisher System will enable feed and water intakes for individual cattle to be measured, with sensor systems enabling measurement of greenhouse gases.

The North Wyke Farm Platform (part of Rothamsted Research) is considered the most highly instrumented farm in the world.  This allows further characterisation of the impact of ruminant livestock on the land by coupling three self-contained ‘farmlets’ with an analytical laboratory to measure changes to soil, water and air. This enables researchers to measure the loss of nutrients or veterinary chemicals (including antibiotics) to the air, soil and groundwater, as well as the impact of particular feeds on greenhouse gas (GHG) production.

North Wyke Farm Platform

North Wyke Farm Platform

Similar technologies to measure feed intake are being employed for sheep at Aberystwyth, with in-depth studies of animal nutrient cycling through use of the Small Ruminant Platform. This enables the study of metabolic change within the rumen to assess feed additives or develop new pharmaceuticals, along with highly accurate environmental impact assessments.

Gut health can be probed through use of a library of rumen-derived anaerobic bacteria and fungi, supporting mechanistic studies investigating improved feed efficiency and/or GHG production.

At the opposite end of the production cycle, CIEL and SRUC have co-funded a mobile CT scanner for high resolution assessment of sheep (or pig) carcass and body composition. Sedated animals can be scanned to assess carcass composition or body energy reserves to provide data into breeding programmes or to more accurately assess change for animals on different trials. Traits of interest include muscle mass and shape, back fat depth or body condition, meat marbling or skeletal structure. To date, the mobile CT scanner has already been used to scan breeding stock of multiple livestock species, along with meat products, fish and wildlife specimens.

Poultry

Whilst the poultry industry is typically seen as the most innovative and forwards facing farm livestock sector, further research is required to unlock the genetic potential of multiple current bird breeds and reduce the impact of avian diseases.

Two new specialist facilities have been constructed to bridge the gap between typical university bird pens (tens of birds) and commercial houses (tens of thousands of birds). At the University of Bristol, eight experimental rooms (with two on-site hatcheries) allow detailed studies to take place, with the option of measuring and analysing a wide range of data, including environmental, weight/FCR, visual and auditory welfare cues from broilers, laying hens or turkeys. At SRUC, a larger facility exists, with a capacity of up to ~6,000 birds to trial new products/techniques that have been developed. This offers farm business owners and integrators opportunities to rapidly test and validate products within a setting and environment more comparable to a commercial situation.

A third facility named the Centre for Digital Innovation Applied to Livestock at Newcastle University provides broad technical expertise from an interdisciplinary team consisting of livestock scientists, veterinarians, computer scientists, mathematicians and engineers to address current industry challenges. One area of expertise is animal biomechanics, with investment in a state-of-the-art animal gait laboratory – particularly relevant to lameness and associated welfare challenges that can be applied to all animals (including humans!).

Pigs

The UK pig sector faces many challenges, including the need to further reduce antibiotic usage, price instability and international competition for export markets. Producing pork efficiently and meeting the expectations of our consumers – whether it be domestic or overseas – is of critical important to improve farm profitability and place UK pork as a premium product.

CIEL has funded new pig research facilities at the University of Leeds and refurbishment and expansion of existing facilities at SRUC and AFBI. At Leeds, an Outdoor Pig Research Farm – the first of its kind in the UK – is operational and designed to enable comparative trials between indoor and outdoor systems. Both systems will feature precision feeding equipment to collect real-time intake and performance data for individual pigs, enabling more precise optimisations for specific production systems. At SRUC, funding has been used to develop a high welfare sow unit – ideal for behavioural studies. This complements existing expertise within SRUC and is of direct relevance to pig producers who are looking to raise sow welfare standards without compromising productivity and reduce levels of piglet mortality. For research into pig nutrition, new electronic feeding stations at AFBI enable the choice of multiple diets. Coupled with infrared cameras, imaging enables non-invasive measurements of physiological conditions and can be applied to studies of feeding behaviour.

Non-agricultural facilities

Mobile CT Scanner in use

Whilst much of the funding has been spent on improving the UK’s capacity to deliver applied livestock science – either through on farm developments or new kit – CIEL is also committed to improving farm performance through impacts on animal health and food quality or authenticity.

Adopted from cutting edge human health science, the Roslin Institute (Edinburgh) is working with CIEL to develop the Large Animal Research and Imaging Facility (LARIF). Bringing together advanced imaging techniques (CT, MRI, ultrasound), surgical equipment and a specific pathogen-free containment facility, LARIF will support the application of early stage research from multiple disciplines including immunology, neuroscience and developmental biology, helping to advance the One Health agenda on farms.

For studies post farmgate and capitalising on expertise within Queen’s University Belfast ‘Institute for Global Food Security’, CIEL has helped to equip researchers with new analytical equipment for projects characterising food quality or investigating food fraud. Already, analytical facilities have been used for real-world problems including speciation of fish in frozen products, detection of microbial contamination and speciation of ruminant offal meats.

2018 and beyond

Whilst it is still early days for the Agri-Tech Centres, benefits to industry are increasing through access to specialised technologies or services, working in collaboration with other business and academic partners and the ability to respond to business challenges faster and more efficiently. CIEL has secured funding for partners – both UK and overseas – to develop new diagnostic tools and is adding value to existing projects through comprehensive market analyses and industrial dissemination.

The creation of a bespoke cloud-based portal to develop and manage innovation projects also enables real-time sharing of information – both of market and funding information – while driving development and streamlining the delivery of innovation projects. This service, offered exclusively to members, acts as an extension to business R&D departments and provides a simple framework for evaluating the merits of potential projects.  

The Agri-Tech Centres were established to bridge the gap between applied science and practical agriculture.  Their focus is to build collaborations and drive greater efficiency, resilience and wealth across the agrifood sector. By bringing together businesses and researchers, the Centres are helping to create a new collegiate culture to tackle real-world challenges and have set the foundations for the UK to become a leading force in Agri-Tech and food science.

Casey Woodward

Business Manager

Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL)

Email: Casey.Woodward@cielivestock.co.uk

Web: agritechcentres.com or to contact CIEL directly cielivestock.co.uk

References

  1. http://www.dairyuk.org/



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