Innovative research projects set to maximise dairy production chain
Vistamilk is the youngest SFI research centre but it is already yielding impressive results
Teagasc geneticists Dr Donagh Berry and Dr Deirdre Purfield have been analysing the cattle genome for genes that regulate size. ‘You hear people talk about farm to fork,’ says Dr Berry. ‘We talk about soil to society and pasture to plate.’
New ways to capitalise on Ireland’s natural grass-based milk production system, the development of new health-giving dairy products, and ways to reduce the carbon footprint of Ireland’s cattle. These are among the ground-breaking research projects being undertaken by the Vistamilk Science Foundation Ireland Research Centre.
Established in September 2018, Vistamilk is the youngest SFI research centre. Its mandate is to facilitate the development and deployment of new knowledge, new technologies and new decision support tools to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire dairy production chain.
“We focus on milk production and processing,” says director Donagh Berry. “You hear people talk about farm to fork; we talk about soil to society and pasture to plate.”
According to Berry, there are three main components to the centre’s work – soil and pasture, the cow, and food products.
The soil and pasture element looks at areas such as carbon sequestration, farming weather forecasts, grass growth prediction, and different types of grass that will grow in colder weather.
A particular area of interest is the greenhouse gas emissions which are attributed to Irish agriculture.
“Beef and dairy cattle and sheep are ruminants and produce greenhouse gases, but we don’t know what their net contribution is,” says Berry. “Grass and soil form a carbon sink and we have to figure out how much it consumes. We can measure this by using eddy covariance towers, but they are very expensive. We are going to place a number of them around the country to measure the amount of carbon being taken up.”
He points out that beef cattle tend not to be highly stocked and that this could mean the carbon sequestration by the land could more than make up for the emissions from the cattle. “There could be a net gain from the land,” he adds. “If you could combine with fintech, there could be some kind of monetisation of the carbon. Beef farmers could sell carbon credits to dairy farmers.
If you can reduce carbon emissions by feeding the cows garlic, are you going to have garlic flavoured milk that no one wants to buy?
“The relationships are there already, and the trade could be underpinned by blockchain. Vistamilk doesn’t have expertise in blockchain but we are looking for partners in the area.”
Greenhouse gas emissions are also a focus of the centre’s work on cows. “We are looking at feeding cattle differently to reduce their greenhouse gas production,” says Berry. “We are feeding them different supplements based on garlic or citrus. But if you can reduce carbon emissions by feeding the cows garlic, are you going to have garlic flavoured milk that no one wants to buy?”
Sustainability can be a market differentiator for Irish food products, he contends. “We can measure how much methane an animal produces, and most Irish beef and dairy could be sold as low carbon products. We could put a QR code on meat and dairy products which would give consumers information on its sustainability metrics. And not just its environmental characteristics but all aspects of its production with traceability all the way back to the individual farm. The whole thing could be underpinned with blockchain. This could become a real point of differentiation in the market.”
Another piece of research relates to calf prices at mart. Marts have gone virtual due to Covid-19 and that makes it more difficult for farmers buying and selling calves to judge what is a fair price. Vistamilk has developed technology that will give them an estimated value for a calf based on a range of different factors.
The development of healthier dairy products is another area of focus. Irish dairy products are naturally quite healthy in any case, Berry explains, with Irish butter being yellower than American butter due to higher concentrations of beta carotene, which has known health benefits.
“One of our researchers in Waterford is looking at carotenoid compounds and their relationship to cognitive ability,” he continues. “How do we get more of them into dairy products? They are already in milk at a low level and you can buy them off the shelf in tablet form. Can we get them into milk products like yogurt? That could be very good from a human health perspective.
“We are producing a lot more milk than we used to, and markets will become saturated with traditional products. High carotenoid milk and other health products could be very interesting from that point of view.”