The spring months at Harper Adams see many of our final year students turn to their Honours Research Projects, or HRPs – a dedicated, long-form piece of work on a particular topic. These projects are not only important for our students, but also help feed back into our teaching and wider research – and, ultimately, to industry more widely.
In this guest blog, Professor of Animal Science Liam Sinclair explains how three of our students are looking at the ‘hoofprint’ of milk this year – and why their work is important.
It is not that long ago that the environmental impact of farming was a relatively minor component of the curriculum for Agriculture students.
Now, there is seldom a day without an article in the popular press on the environmental consequences of farming, particularly the effects of dairy and beef production.
Many of these comments are subjective, ill-informed, and are not evidence based. A key component of our undergraduate teaching in agriculture is now to provide students with the evidence and ability to respond to these arguments, and to develop the tools to be able to reduce the environmental impact of farming, whilst improving animal welfare, use less fossil fuels, produce nutritious and safe food, increase biodiversity, and of course ensure that farming is still profitable.
In the final year of the BSc Agriculture courses, there is the opportunity to undertake an Honours Research Project (HRP) in an area such as reducing the methane output from dairy cows. Methane production from cattle is a very topical subject, as it contributes around 40 per cent of the carbon footprint of a litre of milk.
Not only does this have an environmental impact, it is also a valuable loss of energy that could be diverted into milk or beef. However, most commercial farmers have no way of knowing how much methane is being produced by their cows, or what effect a change in diet or management may have.
We have been very fortunate at Harper Adams University to have recently been awarded a grant from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to install four state of the art GreenFeed units on our Future Farm dairy unit. These units allow us to accurately measure the methane output from cows when housed or grazed under commercial conditions.
Final year BSc students Dan Smith, Isla Andrews and Elin Davies beside the GreenFeed Units that are measuring the methane output from dairy cows as part of their HRP.
This equipment is currently being used by three students as part of their HRP’s investigating the effect of diet on the methane output from dairy cows.
As well as methane production, the effects on intake, milk performance, body condition, diet digestibility and blood metabolites are also being measured.
The information generated by the students will not only be of direct value to their studies, but will feed into, and underpin, the teaching of other students studying agriculture, and will help commercial dairy and beef farmers improve their environmental impact and profitability.