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Lessons in sustainable agriculture techniques from Field Station

Asian Carp

Innovation in farming: there is a theory that carp, a sustainable fresh water fish, can grow entirely off algae fuelled by duck faeces. Photograph: KeystoneUSA-ZUMA / Rex Features


Powered by article titled “Lessons in sustainable agriculture techniques from Field Station” was written by Tim Smedley, for on Monday 16th December 2013 07.00 UTC

What happens when you put twelve sustainability and ethics professionals in a room and give them a presentation on global food security? The answer: a hell of a lot of questions

But at Field Station, the farm-based sustainability days run by the Food Animal Initiative (FAI) and the Benchmark group, questioning the received wisdoms of sustainability is the whole point.

The audience was made up of two teams of Guardian Sustainable Business competition winners – six from the global drinks company Diageo’s compliance and ethics team, the remainder from environmental charity Earth Trust. But over the course of the day, Mike Gooding (managing director at FAI Farms and chairman of the 2013 Oxford Farming conference) and his team were still able to teach them a few new things. Did you know that ducks are the only animal that give themselves colonic irrigations? No, me neither.

The FAI farm near Oxford, where Field Station events take place, also has a close relationship with the University of Oxford. While a working farm in its own right, it experiments with new sustainable agriculture techniques on-site and at a sister farm in Brazil.

When Gooding, also the farmer, finally gives the group a tour of the farm he includes everything from trying to phase out soya meal in animal feed (replaced with local grown beans and peas), to feeding pigs on silage (never been done commercially before) to ancient cow breeds (Saler, if you’re wondering) with wide pelvises, able to live longer and bear more young. Gooding has one cow that has calved 17 times, compared to typical beef stock and dairy cows that may have only two. The French Saler are also able to thrive off poor quality grass and so are particularly well suited to the flood meadows of the River Thames.

Some experiments are in their early stages, such as a deep pond for carp and ducks, the theory being that carp, a sustainable fresh water fish, can grow entirely off algae fuelled by duck faeces (hence the colonic fact). But all share common traits, namely polyculture rather than monoculture, animal welfare at the forefront, and organic practices.

Much effort goes into trying to relearn bygone agricultural techniques, while others may never have been tried before. His team have for example successfully trialled a more humane way of castrating male sheep. Rather than an elastic band constricting the scrotum and major vessels – a practice criticised by the RSPCA among others – FAI have adopted a way of inverting the testicles inside the ram lamb from birth, a practice believed to be less stressful and allowing a much quicker recovery; the body warmth then renders the semen infertile but testosterone is still produced, giving faster animal growth (and thus less feed and manpower needed).

Many of FAI’s practices have been adopted by the industry. Did you also know that chickens need tree canopy cover to be stress free, if free range? No, me neither. Gooding showed the group the area where this theory was tested: a large chicken coup in a field with bare earth, a patch of fern trees and a patch of silver birch.

The chickens choose to spend all their time amongst the silver birch, the closest to the habitat of Indo-Chinese jungle fowl from which all domestic chickens descend. Tree cover is necessary for chickens to feel safe from predators, typically birds of prey. A large green field may be categorised as free range, but chickens will typically show stress signs by pulling out feathers; in Oxford, they are not only fully feathered but produce a greater clutch of eggs with fewer spoilt shells. McDonalds has since adopted the practice and a minimum of 5% of the land on which its free range eggs come from must now include tree canopy.

Gooding was also keen to stress the importance of such innovations in a global context. “The equations are pretty straightforward for livestock production around the world: there’s lots more people, and lots more people who want to eat meat protein and dairy products. So we’re looking at something like a doubling of animal production over the next 30-50 years… Five years ago it was really hard to sell cattle and sheep and stock, we had to struggle to find a market for them and the price was very low. Now it has completely changed round. Abattoirs write to us on a regular basis… and the price of my beef which two years ago would have fetched something like £2.80 a kilo, is now at about £4.80… it’s just a function of basic supply and demand”.

As ever with sustainability, there were as many questions as there were answers. And while there was barely time for the afternoon events – team-building over ginger-bread baking and scarecrow making; talks on sustainable fishing from a major fish processor; an overview of the theories of Fred Kofman, followed by an art talk at Christchurch college and a meal of locally-sourced food – they managed to fit it all in. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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