Posted 28 January
This interview with Harper Adams Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Lee first appeared in Farmers Weekly’s January 2022 Transition supplement, and is reproduced here with thanks.
Farmers seeking to increase productivity should adopt a balanced approach – rather than embarking on a simple quest to maximise farm output, say experts.
A strategy based purely on raising output can certainly increase farm revenue. But done badly it can also result in costly unintended consequences – wiping out any additional profit and causing environmental challenges too.
The idea that UK farmers must ramp up production because they are languishing behind farmers overseas deserves closer scrutiny, says Michael Lee, Deputy Vice Chancellor and Professor in Sustainable Livestock Systems at Harper Adams University.
Suggestions that agricultural productivity is increasing more slowly in the UK than in other counties are not what they might first appear, says Professor Lee. Although there is always room for improvement, UK farmers are already immensely successful.
“If you look at wheat yields, the UK has been leading other countries for many years. And if you are already more productive to begin with, then everyone else is playing catch-up in terms of efficiency, rather than forging ahead.”
It's a similar trend with UK dairy – especially some of the more intensive Holstein production systems, says Professor Lee. It is often the case that other countries are increasing their productivity to UK levels, rather than the UK falling behind.
Similarly, Professor Lee says productivity has plateaued in the UK beef and sheep sectors because livestock producers have successfully responded to government policies encouraging focusing on grass-based systems.
“What we have seen in the UK is a combination of some farm sectors maintaining high levels of productivity, while other sectors have delivered what policy-makers have wanted them to deliver via the basic payment scheme
“You could argue, of course, that those policies have not been right. You could argue that a lot of improvements need to be made. But it's not fair to look at skewed data on productivity when farmers have delivered exactly what they were asked.”
UK arable growers in particular have been way ahead of the curve, says Professor Lee. They are a prime example of the Pareto Principle – or 80:20 rule – which suggests that 80% of farm output comes from the first 20% of effort.
“The more productive you are, the more difficult it is to improve,” he explains.
“It's the same with wheat. Beyond a certain level, it becomes harder and harder to increase yields. So countries which are less productive in the first place find it easier to make rapid improvements.”
In any case, excessive productivity can sometimes bring unintended consequences. The Netherlands, for example, ramped up agriculture production by focusing on intensification. But doing so also resulted in increased pollution.
“They're now rolling back some of the components of productivity after realising that they need a more circular livestock system rather than a more intensive livestock system – whereas in the UK we have always had that more balanced model.”
The more subtle mix of extensive and intensive systems seen in the UK – with more of a focus on nutrient use efficiency – means a lower risk of phosphorus pollution. But Professor Lee says that doesn't mean intensive systems are wrong.
“We certainly shouldn't demonise any particular farming practice. That's critical, because because we need a mix of systems to deliver a range of high quality food at prices that everyone can afford – whatever their income level.
“Put simply, we need to do everything a little bit better. There is a place for sustainable intensification – a focus on increasing yields with fewer inputs – and there are many sectors that do that phenomenally well.
“But we also need to encourage agriculture that works at one with nature – a more agro-ecological and interconnected approach – and certain sectors align very well with that concept, including beef, sheep and dairy.”
Greater integration between the UK dairy and the beef sectors, for instance, would result in significantly more dairy beef – better utilising and optimising available on-farm resources while generating valuable additional income.
Increasing the use of high-quality forage – and replacing imported soya feed with local home-grown proteins – could reduce the carbon footprint of UK livestock production while helping UK agriculture meet Net Zero targets.
Feed companies are already working to identify opportunities to better use by-products rather than raw materials for animal feed. “That is the role livestock will have to deliver – and that's where it's going to add value,” says Professor Lee.
Meanwhile, a resurgence of interest in the re-introduction of lowland beef and sheep into arable systems is improving crop yields and soil organic matter by increasing manure usage rather than relying solely on inorganic fertilisers.
“Looking ahead, the message is about better integration, increasing the usage of by-products on farms and identifying ways to use available resources more efficiently. They can all help improve productivity – and do so in a way that is sustainable.”
The School of Sustainable Food and Farming is working with farmers and other supply chain businesses to reduce the environmental impact of food production.
Based at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, the school has three steering partners: the NFU, retail giant Morrisons and fast food chain McDonald’s. Training for farmers will be provided by the University and a host of delivery partners such as RAFT Solutions Ltd.
Harper Deputy Vice-Chancellor Professor Michael Lee described the partnership as a critically-needed collaboration which will support the transition to a more sustainable and profitable food system – good for the planet as well as human health.
The school's primary goal is to achieve net-zero UK agriculture. But its ambitions include wider aspects of sustainability – including biodiversity, animal welfare, rural community support, green energy production and farm profitability.
Professor Lee said a more sustainable blueprint for sectors such as dairy, beef, sheep, pigs and poultry would include stripping out imported feeds from livestock rations, reducing methane output and improving soil and animal health.
“We are trying to find the sweet spot in terms of the balance between input costs and output value,” said Professor Lee.
“In a more sustainable system, you might accept a lower level of performance in exchange for using significantly fewer and less damaging inputs – although in a win-win scenario, you would maintain that performance while stripping them out.
Launched last autumn, initial research topics include: livestock breed choice, diet composition, yield improvement, agricultural building design, on-farm renewable energy, precision farming, sensors and use of data.
Research findings will help farmers tweak their management practices to be more sustainable. RAFT Solutions is already playing a key role in developing practical skills training associated with animal breeding and health.
RAFT Solutions chief executive Jonathan Statham said: “The pressures on farming and farmers are intense but there are win-win opportunities where better animal health and welfare are better economically as well as better for the planet.
“Reducing the waste of poor health and reproductive inefficiency alongside delivering practical precision livestock farming (PLF) solutions is where our work supports sustainable farming.”