Back to School

Last month, I embarked on studying again, something I haven't done formally for well over a decade now. I am a self-confessed geek and love to learn, but the subject this time is something new to me: Ruminant Nutrition. My academic background is in English Literature (I was an English teacher for ten years before becoming a cheesemaker) but there isn't much call for knowledge of Coleridge and Brideshead Revisited on my new course! Instead I relying on distant and mostly forgotten Maths and Biology A-Levels and an awful lot of brow furrowing. It is incredibly interesting though, and really wonderful to be studying something so relevant to the day job - and more widely, how we as a society could do food production and farming better.

I am taking this course as part of a distance learning MSc programme run by Aberystwyth University, which is largely aimed at people working in the field of farming and food production. The course is made up mostly of mature students, a mixture of other farmers, farm vets, people working for animal feed companies and consultants in the field.

It is all quite different to last time I was studying, when it was my full time occupation and I had no children or goats to look after. Luckily the lectures for the course are provided in the form of podcasts, which I can listen to while milking goats or turning cheeses. Because they are recorded, I can listen again and again until I am finally confident I have taken it all in - a bit of a contrast to the lectures on Medieval Literature I snoozed through as a 19 year old. Hangovers are not so much of a distraction from studying this time around, though I don't remember ever before having to try and fend off a one year old who wants to press the keys on my laptop while I was trying to write an essay, or struggling to hear what a lecturer was saying because of overly loud goats in the background, so there are swings and roundabouts.

You may be wondering, but what even is a ruminant? Well, good question! A ruminant is an animal that has a rumen as part of their digestive system. The rumen is a large sack at the start of the digestive tract that food enters after it is swallowed - in a cow it might be 100 litres, in a sheep perhaps 5 litres. In this vessel lives an enormous population of bacteria, fungi and protozoa which ferment and break down the material the animal consumes. Cows, sheep and goats are all common ruminants, and deer and giraffes less well known examples. They are evolved to quickly ingest plant material such as grass and leaves, and then when they are ready to sit down and rest, they regurgitate this food (now called 'cud') and re-chew it 40-50 times, before swallowing it again for a second exposure to the rumen and its microflora.

One of the first lessons of the course was that when you feed a ruminant, it is really more accurate to say that you are feeding the microorganisms in the rumen: the microorganisms in turn feed the ruminant. It is they that break down the tough plant material and protein that the animal has eaten, producing volatile fatty acids which are actually what the animal uses for its energy. The main source of protein for a ruminant by extension is not actually protein in the diet (which the microbes break down for their own use), but the microbes from the rumen themselves, some of which flow on into the digestive tract to be absorbed as food by the animal.

This is a pretty amazing system, and means that ruminants are uniquely well placed to thrive on what to other animals would be a poor quality and indigestible diet of roughage. Modern farm systems often supplement grass and hay with concentrated feed to help meet the animals' energy needs, but even so at least 60% of the ruminant's diet needs to be roughage such as hay or grass for it to remain healthy.

The course also considers ground breaking research that is taking place at the moment to reduce methane emissions from ruminants to lessen their environmental impact. Some of these are simple dietary adjustments that are actually available to us right now; others are more technical but potentially game changing. Research is currently looking into a vaccine that would use the animal's own immune system to reduce the populations of methane producing bacteria in their rumens. Early trials have shown this method can indeed reduce these bacteria populations in the rumen and the amount of methane produced by the vaccinated animals, so there is clearly strong potential in this work.

I find it so exciting to see how science can find solutions to problems in the world around us and to advance understandings even in a field such as farming, which people sometimes mistakenly assume is 'simple'. I have sometimes been guilty of jumping to the conclusion that if science and farming mix, there is something sinister going on. Actually most scientists in this field are trying to find solutions that improve efficiency but also animal health/ welfare and the environmental impact of farming. Learning about what these researchers are already achieving gives me a lot of hope for the future.

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