L-R Dr Phil Murray who will lead research on the Farm Platform, Professor Nick Talbot Deputy Vice-Chancellor University of Exeter, Professor Maurice Moloney, Chief Executive, Rothamsted Research and Lois Philipps, Director of the British Grassland Society.

South West food security research boosted by 'globally unique' farm facility

Ambitions to make the South West of England a centre of global significance in the arena of food security and land research have been boosted thanks to a state-of-the-art farm research facility in North Devon.

The University of Exeter is funding two new professors to work with scientists at North Wyke, using Rothamsted Research’s new Farm Platform at North Wyke, North Devon.

The facility aims to help farmers to optimise productivity in ways that are sustainable, whilst at the same time understanding the impact of farming methods on the environment.

The Universities of Exeter and Bristol, in partnership with Rothamsted Research, launched the Food Security and Land Research Alliance at the House of Commons in October 2011. The Alliance brings together world-class expertise across a range of disciplines, from biosciences and agricultural science to economics and the humanities.

Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the North Wyke Farm Platform is a globally-unique facility that allows different farming practices to be evaluated. It comprises three beef and sheep farmlets. Each of these will be managed differently so that scientists can understand how best to optimise production whilst minimising environmental impact.

One farmlet will be managed with inorganic fertilisers to try to maximise production from the existing permanent pasture. The second farmlet will be run with reduced inputs relying on legumes such as white clover to capture nitrogen wherever possible. The final farmlet will allow researchers to experiment with the latest techniques and technologies such as introducing new varieties of grasses with desirable traits and understanding establishment problems.

Speaking at the opening of the farm platform, Professor Nick Talbot, Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Exeter said: “This is a fantastic resource for Devon and the South West, where farming is such an important industry. I am pleased to announce that the University of Exeter will appoint two new Professors to work with scientists at North Wyke and utilise the Farm Platform.  Our partners at the University of Bristol will also appoint a senior scientist to work within their Veterinary Laboratory and the new Farm Platform.

“The new investment at Rothamsted Research in North Wyke will bring important inward investment in jobs and skills to the South West and is a clear indication of the importance that the government places on the area of sustainable agriculture.”

As a new National Capability, the Farm Platform will provide an integrated set of core data for the farming and research communities, including the measurement of field and water chemistry and water flow rates, greenhouse gas emissions from soils, livestock data and farm management records.

In addition to these ongoing experiments, North Wyke will welcome scientists from around the country and beyond to run their own experiments on the Platform against the background of core data provided by the facility.

The North Wyke Farm Platform is not only measures outputs and effects, but also allows researchers to carefully control inputs. It is equipped with state-of-the-art monitoring equipment and 9km of French drains to capture the water running off the fields. Because each farmlet is hydrologically isolated the researchers will be able to monitor closely everything that goes into and comes off each one, such as nutrient and carbon fluxes as well as financial records. This will allow scientists to come up with an accurate balance sheet of inputs and outputs under different treatments.

Professor Douglas Kell, Chief Executive of BBSRC, said, “Ensuring global food security in the face of a changing climate is one of the most pressing challenges that we face as a society. Meeting it will require that we increase agricultural production whilst at the same time becoming more sustainable, and farmers will not be able to do this without the help of the UK’s world-leading bioscience research community. The launch of the Farm Platform is an exciting development because it will allow us to bridge the gap between the lab and the farm to a greater extent than ever before.”

The Farm Platform is a BBSRC National Capability. It is funded via a national capability grant to provide a strategically important resource for the UK bioscience community.

Date: 30 May 2012