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Farming

Phosphate replacement proposed

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Fighting a green war on pests.

Fighting a green war on pests.

FUNGI could be used as a ‘bio-fertiliser’ with the potential to replace unsustainable mined phosphate in future, according to new research from the University of Cambridge.
The study shows that the interaction of roots with a common soil fungus changes the genetic expression of rice crops, triggering additional root growth that enables the plant to absorb more nutrients.
In addition to causing extra root growth, the mycorrhizal fungus also extends within crop roots, blooming within individual plant cells.
The fungus grows thin tendrils called hyphae that extend into surrounding soil and pump nutrients, phosphate in particular, straight into the heart of plant cells.
Plants ‘colonised’ by the fungi get between 70 to 100% of their phosphate directly from these fungus tendrils, an enormous mineral boost.
The researchers hope that the fungi could be used as a ‘bio-fertiliser’ that ultimately replaces the need to mine phosphate from the ground for industrial fertiliser.
Finding a replacement for mined phosphate is a critical problem as the fertiliser can cause pollution, and the big phosphate mines are now depleted to the point where they are expected to run out in the next 30 to 50 years.
“The big question we are trying to answer is whether and how we can make use of the biofertiliser capacity of mycorrhizal symbiosis in modern and more high input agricultural settings, meaning more intensive farming methods. We need alternatives to phosphate fertiliser if we are to feed growing populations,” said Dr Uta Paszkowski from the University of Cambridge’s, who co-authored the research.
Cereal root architecture involves a few big, thickset roots called crown roots, from which all the smaller lateral roots spread out into the different layers of soil.
Researchers found that plants colonised by mycorrhizal fungi have a different genetic expression which causes the cell walls within crown roots to soften, triggering the growth of many more lateral roots which are able to suck in more nutrients, contributing to a healthier plant with a higher yield.
This is in addition to the phosphate provided by the fungal tendrils, which in effect act as extra roots themselves (in return for which, the fungus absorbs carbohydrate from the plant).
“Plant roots that have the capacity to explore the widest soil area absorb the most nutrients as a consequence and so are likely to have a greater crop yield. By finding out which parts of the genome are responsible for the best plant root systems we can start breeding for the best root architecture,” said Ms Paszkowski.
“Designer crops with the best possible root systems will mean greater crop yield, which means more people fed.”
The main hurdle for researchers to overcome is the self-regulation of plants, which means the fungi cannot be tested on an industrial scale alongside traditional fertiliser.
“Plants monitor their own nutritional state. If a plant has enough phosphate it will not allow fungus to enter root – so at the moment it’s one or the other. We are working on ways to circumvent this blockage so we can allow symbiosis to contribute in agricultural practices in better developed countries,” said Ms Paszkowski.
Mycorrhizal fungi are extremely common in all soils around the world, and are an ingredient in many ‘bio’ plant foods found in domestic garden centres, but have yet to be used for industrial agriculture.

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Business

“There aren’t enough hours in the day” for entrepreneurial young Pembrokeshire dairy farmer Scott Robinson

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“I WOULD not be where I am today if it were not for Farming Connect,” says Pembrokeshire dairy farmer Scott Robinson.

Scott, 25, is ambitious, focused and also very busy! He works alongside his parents at the family farm near Clynderwen and runs his own successful milk-vending machine enterprise.

He says he hasn’t yet found the route to achieving the perfect work/life balance – ‘there aren’t enough hours in the day’ – but, like everything else he tackles, he’s working on it! 

After attending Hartpury College to study an extended diploma in agriculture, Scott travelled around New Zealand to get experience of working on large-scale dairy units.

“It was an eye-opener – if their workers hadn’t finished their day by 5pm, they felt they were getting something wrong, we could learn from that here in Wales too!”

Scott grew up on the council-owned Pembrokeshire farm which has been tenanted by his parents for almost 30 years. They currently milk 140 Holstein Friesian cows twice daily and graze them on 200 acres of pasture and silage.  

The family first accessed Farming Connect’s Advisory Service in 2019.  Soil sampling and nutrient management planning advice led to more targeted use of nitrogen fertilisers on fields with high indices with slurry elsewhere.

“This has saved us time and money so we’ll now reassess this every three to four years,” says Scott.

Through the Advisory Service, they also applied for an infrastructure report and will shortly start work on a new slurry lagoon which will ensure the farm meets the new agri-pollution requirements. This will allow for more efficient use of farm nutrients and enable the family to transition to a flying herd, buying in all replacement heifers. The farm infrastructure report was submitted as part of the planning application providing the information required for Natural Resources Wales to approve the proposal.

Two years ago, urged on by his Farming Connect mentor Lilwen Joynson, Scott started researching the costs and viability of setting up a new milk vending machine business at the farm. He successfully applied for a substantial loan which enabled him to convert one of the farm outbuildings and invest in the necessary equipment.  He also set up a formal agreement with his parents to purchase some of their milk, the remainder of which is sold on contract to a major dairy wholesale company.

Scott says that tapping into a range of Farming Connect support services has not only given him new skills, but also increased his network of similarly pro-active farmers all keen to share their experiences of innovative or more efficient ways of working.

Scott and his parents have at various times been members of a local Farming Connect dairy discussion group- which meets quarterly to discuss issues such as benchmarking, nutrient management planning and grazing strategies as well as animal health and performance.

A former participant of the Agri Academy, which he says was a massive boost to his self-confidence, Scott has also been part of Farming Connect’s Prosper to Pasture basic programme to have a better understanding of pasture management. The family have also accessed sector-specific guidance on topics including planning, nutrient management, slurry storage, grassland and crop management. Scott also joined a local Agrisgôp set up especially for dairy farmers involved with milk-vending enterprises, which included those just thinking of starting up as well as fully-fledged operators.

“It was hugely helpful to share guidance on good suppliers, compare costs and swap contacts – I found sharing our experiences a big support.”

The group was led by Lilwen Joynson, who had met Scott at the beginning of his entrepreneurial ‘journey’ in her role as his mentor.  

Scott says Lilwen’s support was the catalyst which encouraged the whole family to talk openly ‘around the kitchen table’ about their hopes for the future.

“By facilitating our discussions, we soon had a clear sense of direction and her insistence that we each drew up a detailed action plan and deadlines after every meeting had a huge impact on both short and long-term ambitions for the future direction of the farm.  

“Farming Connect has helped me learn more about innovation, current best practice and more efficient ways of working, all critical for farmers at a time we need to be more aware of climate change and protecting the environment.

“Lilwen encouraged us all to think of the wider implications and convinced me and my parents that we should investigate and capitalise on every opportunity to future proof both the farm and the milk vending business. 

“I’ve got an expanding customer-base and I’m optimistic that within three years, when I hope to have paid off my loan, all profits from the milk vending side will be going straight into my pocket – that’s a nice thought to keep me working hard!”

Scott has also undertaken Farming Connect training courses including social media training and a marketing course which help him promote the milk vending enterprise.

“It makes good commercial sense to take advantage of all the support and guidance available, and with Farming Connect services either fully funded or subsidised by up to 80%, I’d advise anyone else to pick up the phone to their local development officer today.”

Farming Connect is delivered by Menter a Busnes and Lantra Wales and financed by Welsh Government and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

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Business

Council officers conduct visits in response to Avian Influenza incident

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Following the identification of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza  in poultry at a site near Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire and the declaration of an Influenza Protection Zone and wider Surveillance Zone surrounding the Infected Premises (by the Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales), on Friday 9 September, officers from Pembrokeshire County Council’s Public Protection Division have been engaged in visiting addresses within the 3 kilometre Protection Zone around the site.

Officers are identifying locations where poultry and/or other captive birds are kept and to provide information on restrictions that currently apply to help prevent the spread of disease.

The Council’s officers are working in support of veterinary colleagues from the Animal and Plant Health Agency who are managing a co-ordinated response to the incident, in collaboration with the Welsh Government, Food Standards Agency and Public Health Wales.

A map showing the extent of the zones and restrictions that apply can be seen on the Welsh Government website at https://gov.wales/declaration-avian-influenza-protection-zone-surveillance-zone-near-milford-haven-pembrokeshire, and road signs are currently being erected by the local authority to help clarify where these zones begin and end, which will remain in place until the restrictions can be lifted.

It is vital keepers of birds remain vigilant and ensure they have the very highest levels of biosecurity in place.

Responsibilities of people who keep birds:

  • All keepers of kept birds should be vigilant for signs of the disease such as increased mortality, respiratory distress and drops in food or water intake, or egg production.
  • Consult your veterinary surgeon in the first instance if your birds are unwell.
  • If you or your vet suspect that avian influenza could be causing illness in your birds, you must, by law, report this to the Animal and Plant Health Agency Wales on 0300 303 8268. This will trigger a disease investigation by APHA vets.
  • You must apply strict biosecurity measures to prevent any materials, equipment, vehicles, clothing, feed or bedding that could have been contaminated from wild birds coming onto your premises. Further guidance is available here: biosecurity and preventing disease in captive birds.

The UK health agencies advise that the risk to public health from the virus is very low and the UK food standards agencies advise that avian influenza poses a very low food safety risk for UK consumers.

Members of the public who do not keep birds can help by reporting dead wild birds.  You should call the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77 if you find:

  • One or more dead bird of prey or owl
  • Three or more dead gulls or wild waterfowl (swans, geese, ducks)
  • Five or more dead birds of any species

These may be collected for examination and avian influenza surveillance, depending on the species and location. It is important not to pick up or touch any sick or dead bird.

Sick or injured wild birds should not be reported to Defra. Instead contact the RSPCA (in Wales and England) on 0300 1234 999 who may be able to offer assistance.

Dead or sick birds in public places, such as beaches, can also reported by calling 01437 764551 (or out of hours 0345 601 5522) for Pembrokeshire County Council to arrange to collect safely.

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Farming

Welsh Government must balance farming priorities

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IN EARLY July, the Welsh Government published its proposals for the Sustainable Farming Scheme.

Robert Dangerfield, Communications Manager for the Country Land Owners and Business Association Cymru, responds.

We are pleased to see the ambition shown within the document to support sustainable and profitable food production alongside addressing the climate and biodiversity emergencies.

The proposals arise after three consultations over five years and reflect the work our members and the CLA team have done with Welsh Government.

We are happy to see considerable detail on what the scheme will pay for, the process for how farmers and landowners can apply, and how the transition from the current landscape of the Basic Payment Scheme and Glastir to the Sustainable Farming Scheme will work.

We do, however, have some specific concerns.

Firstly, the requirements for 10% woodland/forestry cover and a 10% requirement for habitat creation and maintenance may not be suitable for all holdings. The need to balance sustainable food production must be considered further.

Secondly, there are no specific payment rates for the scheme. Welsh Government have explained that this is because the current funding settlement with the UK Government only goes to 2024, so they cannot commit to specific rates. This is disappointing, and we will continue to lobby to ensure future funding matches the commitments within the proposals.

WHAT HAS BEEN PROPOSED?

Despite the concerns highlighted above, there is a fair amount of detail within the document. To summarise, the scheme includes a farm sustainability review that will include farm details (size, sector, livestock), a carbon assessment and a baseline habitat survey.

The review will be digital, where possible, to reduce cost and concentrate resources on scheme delivery.

It will provide entry to the scheme and identify the actions Welsh Government will pay for. These will consist of a mixture of universal activities that all applicants must undertake – for which they will receive a baseline payment via a five-year contract and optional and collaborative actions which will attract additional payments.

The universal actions include:

·        Record of key performance indicators;

·        10% of land for woodland/forestry and 10% for habitat creation/maintenance;

·        Undertake animal health and welfare plan;

·        Undertake a biosecurity plan;

·        Manage areas of cultural/heritage significance;

·        Undertake a five-yearly soil analysis.

The optional and collaborative actions are very wide-ranging and will be able to be tailored for the plethora of different farm types across Wales. One particular area of importance for our membership is access.

The proposal outline that any options relating to access are optional and include:

·        upgrading footpaths to multi-use paths;

·        enhancing existing paths to make them more accessible;

·        establishing joined-up and new access routes and trails;

·        establishing new access;

·        hosting educational and care farm visits.

We will continue to work with the various access fora and the Welsh Government to ensure that any new access is voluntary, incentivised, and permissive.

INITIAL VIEWS

The Royal Welsh Agricultural Show took place a week after the publication of the proposals, providing an ideal opportunity for discussion with lots of different organisations and our members.

Not surprisingly, the “10 and 10 requirements” dominated many meetings and conversations I had.

Some farmers were not concerned as they had already reached these percentages on their holding but were worried about land held under Farm Business Tenancies that often did not include the woodland.

In the short term, there are no quick answers; but the CLA Cymru team will be part of a Welsh Government-organised tenancy working group to discuss the impact of the proposals on landowners and tenants.

Other members outlined their worries that they needed all the productive land they had to go towards feeding their stock or growing their crops. This is a real concern.

For some, the solution will be to sustainably intensify other parts of their farm and become more efficient.

Where this is not possible, the role of exemptions for some farms must be considered by Welsh Government.

AGRICULTURE (WALES) BILL

The Agriculture (Wales) Bill will be published this Autumn.

It will be the legislative mechanism by which Welsh Government can administer the new scheme.

Ministers are confident it will receive Royal Assent by summer 2023, ready to begin testing, trialling, and introducing the new scheme.

We will be working with Members of the Senedd to ensure scrutiny of the Bill and to propose amendments if we see fit.

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