July 2014: Blue sky thinking – space for radical thoughts

I recently attended an agricultural engineers’ conference at Cranfield University and it set me thinking. Nature is random, but as humans we try and standardise things.

For example, a natural meadow is a species-rich habitat; yet we find ourselves planting monocultures of ryegrasses. And the same goes for woodland, which traditionally contained a varied mix of plant and wildlife species. Man-made, post-war forests lack diversity and the opportunity for different plant and wildlife species to work together, for mutual benefit most of the time, which in turn lowers disease pressures.

Engineers are looking to see if, by using small field robots, it’s possible to mimic the random approach of nature to improve crop yields, minimise inputs and reduce disease pressure from neighbouring plants. This, they say, would seek to maintain host plants for predator species to devour pests and reduce pollution from leached nutrients.

The thinking behind the concept is that robots are small and agile, working away like large beetles rather than large cumbersome machines.

Nature captures nutrients in the soil by utilising a range of different plants, with all of the root systems living together. There are shallow and fine rooted plants near the surface, with deeper, more-coarse roots that can access the nutrients that have moved deep into the ground.

That contrasts with the crops we grow that all have roots that stop at the same depth. But what if they didn’t? Think about how we could tackle nitrate leaching, and the consequences of this for outdoor pig production.

At Aberystwyth University, researchers are breeding ryegrasses with the dense and deep penetrating root systems of fescues. The idea is to produce high-yielding, nutrient-efficient and drought-tolerant grasses for cattle and sheep. They may well also suit outdoor pig situations, and be a solution to the need for soil cover while also stopping nitrogen leaching at the same time. We’ll keep talking to the trials team and our colleagues in EBLEX who funded the research.

Continuing with this theme, apparently the demand for cherries is outstripping supply and is offering good returns. As a result the acreage is now increasing. These cherries are grown under cover, like strawberries, and when I see wide-spaced rows of trees under cover with grass between, agro-forestry instantly springs to mind.

That makes me wonder if there’s potential here for outdoor pig systems that are protected from the wind and rain, with no mud and happy staff? It also resolves the issue of nitrogen leaching, yet put pigs back in woodlands and it’s a tick for the welfare box.

Surely this is a win-win? Just the small matter of preventing the pigs from eating the trees and knocking over the metal frames. Maybe that one needs a bit more work!

> Nigel Penlington joined BPEX in 2004 and is the organisation’s environment programme manager. He specialises in environmental issues affecting the UK pig industry and production technology

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