A visit to IBERS

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Another month goes by, and I’m hugely aware that I haven’t managed to blog. I’ve got a stack of things to write about at the moment, but little time to actually do so. There’s plenty going on, but I wanted to mention a visit I made a couple of weeks back to IBERS – the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University. I was there as part of a Ruminant Innovation Network Event that had been organised by the Biosciences Knowledge Transfer Network. Now I know pigs aren’t ruminant animals, but my interest lies more in the information that they had on both feed and grassland and it’s effect on meat quality. It was a fascinating day, I was really out of my depth scientifically for a large part of it but I did learn a lot. I won’t try and explain everything I saw, I’ll just concentrate on some of the bits that I found interesting. I’m getting on my soap box now, so if you want to avert a rant, stop reading. For those willing to carry on I’ll try and keep it short and simple.

Global population is rising, therefore we need more efficient ways of farming in order to produce more food. We also need more efficient modes of processing raw ingredients into food to lessen waste. There’s a general snobbery that supermarket food is poor quality – I wouldn’t always say so. We have friends who breed some of the best lamb I’ve ever tasted, and all their animals are sold to supermarkets – they’re amongst the most progressive farmers that I know when it comes to the type and quality of grasslands that their flock grazes on. They don’t have the skills to process their own animals, but have a ready outlet a few miles away with a supermarket contracted slaughterhouse.

At IBERS they’ve got extensive ‘test beds’ of different grasses, ryegrasses, clovers and chicory. The testing that they undertake (which is often part funded by the supermarkets) looks at plant breeds, it’s productivity, it’s composition and the effect on soil. They also test the effect the feed has on the animals, both in terms of daily weight gains, and methane production. This doesn’t necessarily involve a whole load of ‘nasty chemicals’ or lab type animal testing scenarios, it’s basic plant development vs the effect on animals – it’s ultimately a very natural way of production.

During the visit, they’d set up a basic methane test tent for us to see, two willing sheep volunteers were happily producing methane for us within this controlled environment. We also got to see the cattle sheds where radio id tags on the ears of every animal would record the daily feed intake which could then be used to calculate daily weight gains. During a presentation we got to see how GPS tags were used to calculate grazing patterns, and how, through a combination of GPS mapping and soil testing – specific parts of fields could get the right level of fertiliser or manure to create a balanced crop.

Where productivity often falls short is when it comes to taste. It doesn’t matter what breed an animal is, what the welfare standards are, whether it’s free range or intensively raised, the main, key ingredient when it comes to taste is the feed that we give that animal. What goes in = the quality of what we get from the animal. When I started my journey of rearing animals, I looked back to the past to the ways that my grandfather kept his pigs. His feeding regime of straights, foraging and vegetables are the centrepiece of my feeding regime. However, I’m not doing it to emulate some ‘old-fashioned’ way of life – it’s based on science. Composite feeds from the large feed producers are the most efficient way of producing super lean pork. However, that isn’t what I’m trying to produce. That said, I’m not averse to using new technology, new feeds and developed crops if there’s a positive effect on the animal. I’ve recently submitted a DEFRA grant application into the effects of vitamin E as a natural antioxidant in pork. A huge amount of research is readily available for ruminants, not so much for the beloved pig. Who knows if I’ll get anywhere, but it’s worth trying.

I’m not advocating that supermarket produce is perfect. Far from it, if we’re realistic, the cheapest supermarket food is functional – it’s there to provide food to this growing population. As a small scale traditional producer, the products that I make take a long time to produce, and are probably hugely inefficient – I have to charge a premium for the product because of this. When we look at functional food, it can be pretty scary what large processing companies have to do in order to produce a product that can be sold cheaply. I’m not saying that processed food is bad, I have a huge respect for processed food, and even though we try and be as self sufficient as possible I often find myself trawling the aisles of the local supermarket looking for a cheap and tasty solution for the evenings meal.

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