CIEL | Meet the Scientist

Rachel Renfree

Senior Research Technician

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Rachel hails from a non-farming background but was drawn to a career within agriculture having grown up in the countryside surrounded by the farming community. Having completed her studies at Duchy College in 2017 with a BSc Hons Rural Business Management degree, 12 months later she returned as a Research Technician.

What project/s are you currently working on?

We have various ongoing research projects at Duchy College and The Cornwall College Group (TCCG), but my main focus is with everything dairy-related.

Currently, I am working on two slurry additive trials for private companies, and we are soon to complete a 2-year Interreg project, working with Cornwall County Council and Finistère County Council – The Agriculture Bas Carbone for Dairy (ABCD) Project. This involves evaluating different feeds on dairy performance and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the cows, and an associated knowledge transfer programme aiming to help reduce the carbon footprint of Cornish dairy farms.

We have seen a real shift in research over the past few years where everything is becoming more focussed on how we can make farming more sustainable and environmentally-friendly. The research we do here at Duchy offers practical insight of how well things will work in a typical farming environment which is invaluable to the farmers.

What capability are you drawing on to deliver the research?

We have a fantastic team of very knowledgeable people specialising in a variety of fields. This means we bounce off each other extremely well. Our students become centrally involved with the research undertaken and this work regularly informs their own projects. The companies we partner with have always encouraged student involvement, recognising it quite often leads to supplementary information.

Our new facilities have meant that we have become quite niche in the UK and we have had a huge amount of interest from companies that would like to start new exciting research projects with us.

Future Farm is our specialist dairy systems research platform which was partly funded by CIEL with the support of Innovate UK. The facility supports the segregation of the herd into 3 groups or mini-herds. These can be managed or fed different diets for research purposes.

The infrastructure includes a system to connect sensor-linked devices within the facility and across the wider College Farm. This enables inputs and outputs to be measured, recorded, compared and reported for each mini herd.

A unique feature of Future Farm is its ability to segregate and store slurry separately from each of the groups. This enables businesses and research institutions to develop, trial, pilot and market test new products & services, from the application of new technologies to animal health & welfare in dairy cattle and nutrient recycling. Future Farm is capable of full profitability, sustainability, nutrient and animal health & welfare analysis within its 3 parallel mini-herd management systems.

What would be your ideal research project, assuming no barriers to resource

The majority of the research we do here at TCCG is through partnerships with other research centres. I think multi-academy research is becoming more innovative; it allows you to have access to the best equipment, latest research and the best professionals within the industry, not forgetting to mention funding possibilities which as we all know is one of the key drivers that enables us to carry out advanced research.

We have run a yearly calf trial here at Duchy (we are Autumn block calving) since 2019. This is one of my favourite trials to work on as I really enjoy the hands-on work. If there were no barriers to resources, I would re-design our calf shed (to make it coincide with Future Farm) and expand the research that we carry out on our youngstock. I would like to be able to do something more involved with genetics and calf performance. Replacement animals are our future, so being able to recognise the potential of a calf from the outset and influence & optimise its performance potential would have a huge impact on future herd performance. Having access to data from the start of an animal’s life is also invaluable. I believe increasing the data we use to make decisions to optimise outputs is priceless. I am currently looking through data from our first calf trials to see how well the cows have performed within the milking herd, which I know will be really interesting.

How did you arrive at doing what you do now?

I came from a non-farming background but grew up in the countryside surrounded by the farming community and knew I wanted a career which involved agriculture. After moving down to Cornwall from Warwickshire, I joined Duchy College as an Agricultural student in 2012 and continued until I finished my BSc Hons Rural Business Management degree in 2017. By this time, I had determined that my main interest was within Dairy (helped with small influence from my now husband!). I then returned to the college 12 months later as Research Technician.

Over time, my job has allowed me to carry out research on a wide variety of projects, I think now is a really exciting time to work within the agricultural research industry when we have so many exciting new technologies and tools readily available for us to learn more as time goes on.

More about Duchy College

Duchy College Rural Business School is at the cutting edge of positive development in rural industry – an organisation that combines education, training, business support and applied research for rural industries.

The Rural Business School houses technical specialists in animal health and welfare, resource management, competitiveness, organic production systems and knowledge transfer. From its inception, the Rural Business School has been firmly embedded in the land-based sector, dedicated to providing services to owners, managers and employees of rural businesses and organisations. It operates within a large network of industry and academic partners and collaborators and has a key role in knowledge exchange and disseminating research from science into practice.

Current projects include:

Calf nutrition: Effects of modification of calf milk replacers to reduce cost on calf growth and health

Dairy-4-Future: The project aims to increase the competitiveness, sustainability and resilience of dairy farms by identifying, evaluating and then widely disseminating knowledge on innovative dairy practices.

Farm Net Zero: A 5-year project funded by the Lottery Community Action Fund to encourage reductions in farm carbon emissions and to share knowledge between farmers and the wider community

Low Carbon Dairying: Evaluating different feeds on dairy performance and greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the cows and associated knowledge transfer programme to help reduce the carbon footprint of Cornish dairy farming.

Slurry additive research: Effects of cattle slurry additives on slurry, soil and crops.

Find out more about Future Farm

Rachel Renfree | Meet the Scientist | Duchy College