By Richard Allison
THE announcement that the ADAS Bridgets Research site is to close, with operations merging with Reading University, highlights the continuing decline of UK-based dairy research.
Less research will slow down progress in the dairy industry at a time when it is needed most, says Reading Universitys David Beever. "But its not all doom and gloom. It may actually benefit producers by focusing research money where its needed."
There is enough research cash available, but some of it is being spent on projects which repeat work already done, believes Prof Beever. "To avoid this, research should be formally co-ordinated across all sites."
Shropshire dairy producer Andrew Shakeshaft agrees that many early MDC projects were telling us things we have known for years.
"Research has become more academic and distanced from the end user. Producers need to be able to relate project results to their own situation."
To bring research closer to producers, SAC has implemented a participative approach.
"Producers are involved during the project instead of just being recipients of research. They also provide valuable feedback on problems encountered during implementation on-farm," says SAC researcher Mike Coffey.
There has been a lot of positive feedback from producers and the uptake of research findings is increasing, he adds.
A further difficulty faced by UK research is the intense competition between research centres, says Prof Beever. "Many researchers spend considerable time bidding against each other for new projects. This process wastes time and resources and it would be better spent doing research itself."
However, for research to be successful, results must reach the producer. Producing booklets for dairymen to read fails dismally. It requires a more a co-ordinated approach, including discussion groups and factsheets.
"But you cant have technology transfer without research being carried out," he says.
Prof Beever sees the move towards short-term research as a disaster because it fails to answer the real issues which producers face. Mr Coffey believes this is happening because some research funders are more concerned with shoring-up support, than longer term research.
Looking back over the last few years, Prof Beever points to many examples where research has helped the industry, such as a better understanding of nutrition, improvements in silage making, housing and parlour design, breeding and the dramatic reduction in somatic cell counts in milk.
"But there is still much research that needs to be done, particularly the decline in dairy cow fertility, which is costing the industry dearly."
The major source of near-market research funding is the statutory milk levy, which generates £2m-£2.5m/year, says MDC chief executive Kevin Bellamy. "There are more than 40 ongoing projects addressing a wide range of issues.
"UK dairy research needs to become leaner and meaner. The dairy industry is changing beyond recognition. Its not possible for research to remain unchanged."
The MDCs process of commissioning research was recently changed with more input from producers. Regional producer committees have been established to decide which topic areas require further research."
Prof Beever also sees a future in researchers and producers working together, but stresses that researchers must be involved to advise on whether work has already been done and add scientific credibility.
An increasing number of MDC research projects will be carried out on commercial dairy farms, says Mr Bellamy. "On-farm research is more appealing to producers and encourages a greater uptake of new ideas."
Milk producer Mr Shakeshaft sees the move to on-farm research as a step in the right direction. "Research in commercial dairy situations is more valuable to producers, but there is still place for scientific research at agricultural colleges.
On-farm projects must still be properly designed, warns Mr Coffey. "Badly conceived projects will provide invalid results which cannot be trusted. There is a difference between research and demonstration projects; demonstrations add little to current knowledge."
In Ireland, Teagascs Seamus Crosse believes the secret is to integrate researchers and advisers, providing producers with direct access to research. This includes demonstration farms and various discussion groups.
In addition, a large proportion of research projects at Teagasc are funded by a levy with producers having an input into which research topics are tackled.
Looking to the future, Dr Crosse suggests that producers take more ownership of near market research, even paying for their own research. *
• More focused projects.
• Competition uses resources.
• Improve technology transfer.
• On-farm research?
An increasing number of MDC research projects will be carried out on commercial dairy farms, says Kevin Bellamy.
Research has become more academic and distanced from the end user, says Andrew Shakeshaft.
Some research money is being spent on projects which repeat work already done, believes David Beever.