CIEL | Meet the Scientist

Professor Jude Capper

ABP Chair of Sustainable Beef and Sheep Production

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What projects are you currently working on?
At present I’m working closely with processors ABP Food Group to better understand and quantify the factors that affect beef and sheep system sustainability, from greenhouse gas emissions through to biodiversity. This will allow us to identify the levers that we can pull to meet Net Zero targets while also accounting for, and improving, other environmental metrics, so that we don’t end up with negative trade-offs. The biggest challenge in this (and any other research) is to get it adopted on-farm. I’m therefore working with colleagues to develop blueprints and dashboards such that the benefits can be clearly and easily communicated to farmers.

One of our biggest challenges in the beef industry is to get cattle finished at an optimum age and at a weight & level of finish that meets processor specifications. In conjunction with colleagues who have expertise in data science and technology, we’re looking at ways to overcome the fact that the majority of farmers do not weigh their cattle before sale and to improve the level of data collection, benchmarking and management in this area. I’ve also become increasingly interested in the sustainability challenges faced by smallholder farms, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, and I’m looking to set up some research projects in this area.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver your research?
I’m very fortunate to be placed in the sweet spot between academia and industry in that I have many brilliant colleagues at both Harper Adams University (HAU) and ABP, and access to a significant proportion of ruminant livestock producers through ABP and their partnership with Blade Farming. This allows me to work closely and collaboratively with colleagues who have a huge variety of research interests and experience, and to use both the Harper Adams farm and the commercial beef facilities at ABP Bromstead. This partnership provides a conduit for industry (producer and processor) intelligence into HAU teaching, assessment and research; in addition to facilitating the execution of research projects that can be piloted at the ABP commercial research farm, and then disseminated out to the industry, ensuring widespread adoption to a greater degree than would otherwise be obtained through traditional research outputs. The partnership also provides a direct link to real-world ruminant supply chain issues that can feed into curriculum content at the undergraduate and postgraduate level. In addition to the academic capability for joint research projects, we also have four honours research students working on projects relating to feed efficiency, grazing systems and beef system biodiversity with ABP.

What would be your ideal research project assuming no barriers to resources?
Ah – always a dangerous question! As somebody who does a fair bit of modelling research, I get eternally frustrated by the lack of data out there on what I would consider to be really important issues. So, in an ideal world, with unlimited research time, I’d love to address the fact that we don’t currently have current and accurate national data on the greenhouse gas emissions for UK-based beef and sheep systems, expressed per kg of product, but also incorporating the new global warming potential metric GWP* and examining the emissions per kg of nutrients, e.g. bioavailable protein and amino acids. I’d expand this further to include the quantification of the differences that changes in on-farm management practices could confer on GHG emissions, e.g. how does heifer age at first calving compare to weight at slaughter or calves weaned per cow? Finally, there’s a huge hole in the knowledge and data relating animal health to greenhouse gas emissions, resource use and other environmental metrics. We urgently need to know which diseases we should prioritize from an animal welfare, human health, environmental sustainability and food waste perspective – I’m working on this at a minor level now, but we all need to get behind this issue to get more and better data available to all stakeholders.

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?
Perhaps surprisingly, I don’t have an agriculture background, but became interested in farming and animal science through horse-riding as a teenager. I went to Harper Adams to study Agriculture with Animal Science and then continued at Harper to do a PhD in Ruminant Nutrition and Behaviour, largely focusing on fatty acid metabolism. I had the pleasure of working as a post-doc in the group headed by Professor Dale Bauman (the fatty acids guru!) at Cornell University starting in 2006 and, relatively early in that position, was asked to take over a project examining the environmental impacts of recombinant bovine somatotropin on environmental impacts from U.S. dairy production.  The rest, including an Assistant Professor position at Washington State University and, since then, 9 years of independent consulting in livestock sustainability, is history.

Which current research areas do you believe will lead to the most significant improvements in sustainability?.
It’s difficult, because I’m obviously biased to my own areas of research, but I truly believe that we have some huge holes in the knowledge as regarding GHG emissions and other sustainability metrics. Given that on-farm practices have the biggest contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and resource use metrics, we urgently need a better understanding of the potential gains that we can make through better animal and crop husbandry. This must be done in combination with the economic implications of management changes such that farmers can be financially viable and to encourage changes in their behaviour. However, above all, the social acceptability component of sustainability is the one where we have the least data and the greatest potential threat to future livestock system resilience. If consumers don’t have trust in livestock production and allow us that social license to operate in future, it will not matter how low our greenhouse gas emissions or high our animal welfare is. Therefore, I believe we need more research into social acceptability and how we can marry current and future livestock systems with consumer desires and perceptions, to truly make a difference.

Find out more about our Founding Research Member, Harper Adams University.

Judith Capper | CIEL