Stakeholder communication is the key to a thriving livestock sector

31 Aug 2021

By George Peart 

The Scottish Rural College recently released a report from two research studies which investigated how social media was being used to disseminate information to farmers and rural producers. It highlighted direct engagement, widespread knowledge sharing and constant streams of information as being useful to share animal science findings. This method is where animal science combines with communication and marketing to become translational science. The researchers encourage further engagement between farmers and researchers, but perhaps the lack of social media interaction is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to stakeholder communication?  We have a huge amount of work to do to build a sufficient level of open discussion between all parties within the livestock industry. Further emphasis should be put on engaging with farmers on an individual level when research grants and focus areas are being allocated. We need to spend more time finding their problems and funding support for them.

As animal scientists, by supporting the people who look after production animals on a day to day basis, we indirectly support and enhance the welfare of those animals themselves. This theory is supported by the wave of agri-tech being implemented to monitor animal health and welfare in farms across the UK. These systems bring two benefits: animal health monitoring and the saving of time for the farmer. Whilst normally we would focus on the animal health aspect, we should be placing more weight on how important that time-saving attribute is for the farmer. Why is reducing time pressure on farm important? Because that time and mental capacity is now needed to cope with other pressures on the business. Producers are now required to meet enhanced standards across numerous retailer schemes. We have a new wave of climate change auditing on farms, and the removal of BPS is set to shake up farming for decades to come. None of these are a bad thing. Enhancing the already world-renowned quality and climate credentials of British livestock production is fantastic. But, as animal scientists, we need to remember that any research advancements being used on farm are limited by the pressures on the farmer using them. On top of time pressures and labour shortages, there are financial struggles to deal with as well as more and more mental health pressures upon rural workers.

We already have all the ingredients to build the solution for this enhanced pressure on the livestock industry in the UK. We hold a fantastic number of research institutes and world-renowned educational bodies. We have public and private bodies such as Innovate UK and CIEL (The Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock), all doing fantastic work towards advancing research and bringing new concepts to market. Last, but not least, we have a farming community which is forward-thinking in many areas, as demonstrated by the push to support mental health across rural communities.

What we do not have is a suitable framework for these parties to talk to each other across the whole industry. This is doubly frustrating because many of these stakeholders could support each other in fixing their problems. The Young Farmers Club have built a mental health training scheme with the Farming Community Network charity. This could greatly benefit animal science researchers and students. The Moredun Research Institute in Scotland has expertise in direct communication with producers, given it is solely owned by farmers. This is vital knowledge for others to replicate. The recently opened UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training offers a vast network of contacts and information for private companies who wish to engage. These are just a few examples within a vast animal science and innovation sector.

There is no doubt that UK animal science can produce huge advancements, but with improved communication the opportunity to improve our impact on industry is huge. This communication must come hand in hand with a renewed focus on the people within livestock production.

The gains of improving stakeholder engagement are there, but what are the risks if we do nothing? Firstly, UK farming is constantly being split into divided camps. This is a symptom of an uncertain future for UK agriculture, and differing opinions on how to chart our way through. However, regardless of opinion, tillage method, environmental credentials, or area of expertise, we are in this together. Becoming more divided simply shifts influence away from producers and research institutes alike.

To improve the situation, there are many communication gaps to be filled. The chasm between industry and academia must be focused on first and foremost. By fixing these communication areas within animal science, we can help UK livestock production adapt and thrive in an uncertain future.