NFU: Helping the next generation of food chain specialists

05 October 2021

Each year, the NFU food chain team sponsors one undergraduate student in dissertation research connected to the UK supply chain. Read about Gabriella Bennion's funded research into sustainably rearing dairy-bred beef calves.

Growing up on a beef and arable farm in Leicestershire, Gabriella Bennion always knew her studies and future career path would have an agricultural focus.

A change on the farm at home and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic influenced what she decided to research for her final year dissertation, and she has now completed her final year at Harper Adams University, during which she studied Rural Enterprise and Land Management.

Gabriella explained:

“The change started three to four years ago on a relatively small scale, alongside our suckler herd. This year, we got rid of more than half of our sucklers (the rest will be going by the end of this year) to focus on buying in dairy-bred calves, in particular British Blue crosses. We buy them in in batches at around four weeks old, and keep them until they are around 10 months old, or when the demand is there and the margins are worthwhile.

“I became more involved in this side of the farm last spring when I got furloughed from my university placement job. So, from March until September, I was rearing calves and it sparked my passion for dairy-bred beef and led me to my chosen topic.”

The dairy-bred beef industry

Gabriella chose the question 'Is collaborative farming the future for sustainably rearing dairy-bred beef calves in England throughout the supply chain?' as her research project title.

“I spent quite a bit of time researching and looking at previous literature on the dairy-bred beef industry, and it indicated that while dairy-bred beef is not a new initiative, it is something that is starting to grow in popularity,” she said.

Furthermore, she found that the willingness of beef farmers to join these groups, as well as the suitability of these systems for the beef supply chain, is something that had not been widely investigated.

Gabriella continued: “With the current climate-change concerns, as well as the financial uncertainties farmers face, there may now, more than ever, be a need for farmers to come together and support themselves in producing British beef."

Collaborative farming

In this context, collaborative farming is all about linking the supply chain together, possibly using collaborative farmer groups.

Gabriella said: “Essentially, this is about farmers working together, sharing data and communicating. I think it’s important farmers know where their animals are going and can communicate with the other farmers if they wish.

“Obviously it’s a lot easier to describe the ideal scenario. It appears that there is room in the industry for collaboration that increases communication among farmers, working towards environmentally friendly and financially sustainable beef production to help put British beef securely on the map.”

Cattle Oak Tree Farm Lancashire_65751

Conducting the research

Gabriella, and her contacts from the NFU food chain and dairy teams, got as many farmers as possible to fill in a questionnaire, and in total, she got 119 participants. The respondents were predominantly male dairy and beef farmers from across England

She also conducted interviews of key industry stakeholders to give an alternative point of view from the supply chain. These stakeholders remained anonymous for the research purposes.

Who was interviewed?

  • 36% of the farmers were dairy farmers
  • 38% of the farmers were suckler farmers
  • 26% of the farmers were beef rearers, growers or finishers and didn’t have any calves born on the farm

Some key stakeholders interviewed wanted to be kept anonymous.

What were the results?

Most farmers are financially driven when making business changes, but they are also starting to consider environmental sustainability as an important element of their enterprise.

Suckler farmers often had a negative attitude towards dairy-bred beef. However, there is evidence that this opinion is evolving, with more farmers becoming open to the idea.

The data also suggested few farmers would currently join a collaborative group, as most are discouraged by not having enough knowledge on how it would work. That said, 18.5% said they would be interested and 26.1% would consider joining with more information.

Interviews of key industry stakeholders showed that organisations began their journey into dairy-bred beef to try and eradicate euthanasia in dairy bull calves. As this is a frequently considered issue in the dairy sector, Gabriella said: “The evidence supports the fact that by working together, we can continue to eradicate calf euthanasia while addressing potential issues in the industry.”

What about consumers?

Consumers often think they know what they want but are not always being given the option. Gabriella said: "Actually, what a consumer says they want when they walk into a supermarket is often different to when they are asked why they brought that particular product.

"It was also suggested that often the consumer trusts that the retailer is already meeting their expectation."

Her research suggested that more farmers need to be aware of what the consumer wants. 62% of respondents agreed that consumer expectations are a priority for beef production and 76% agreed the beef product should be traceable from the farmer to the final product.

Gabriella presented her findings to NFU staff and stakeholders recently, and began her graduate job with Fisher German in September 2021.

Research recommendations to improve effectiveness of collaborative groups

  • Farmers want to see as much information as possible before joining a collaborative group.
  • All farmers in the beef supply chain should feel supported by the organisation they are supplying.
  • Farmers must be listened to, and putting their needs into action will help build their trust and attract all beef farmers, not just dairy farmers.
  • Ensure farms are economically sustainable before focusing on environmental sustainability.
  • Communication should flow throughout the supply chain from the finisher to the dairy farmer. This will allow farmers to improve, adapt, or keep doing what they’re doing in order to produce the best animal for the market and consumer.
  • When creating a supply chain, it is important to consider that calf rearers can be hard to find and effort should be made to highlight rewards and opportunities for farmers.
  • It is crucial to raise awareness with consumers and translate their needs down the supply chain.

The NFU could sponsor your dissertation

The NFU is looking for students currently studying an undergraduate degree whose project or dissertation is linked to the following topics:

  • British food retailers
  • UK food brands, manufacturers or processors
  • The sustainable supply chain
  • Supply chain collaboration or engagement

Find out more on how to apply for dissertation sponsorship. Applications close 1 November 2021.

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