Farmers in Wales could in future produce ethanol and bioplastics from their grass instead of livestock as Welsh scientists investigate alternative income streams to make farming pay outside the European Union.
During a Farming Connect open day at Aberystwyth University's Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Gogerddan, farmers were given an insight into multiple research projects that could help shape the future of Welsh agriculture post-Brexit.
A team of scientists led by Dr Joe Gallagher, Head of Industrial Biotechnology and Director of Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation at IBERS, are studying the conversion of sugars in grass into a range of products including ethanol for use as fuel or platform chemicals, which are used in the production of bio plastics.
There is a potential to produce as much as 5,000 litres of ethanol from one hectare of grass.
“Animals are not the most efficient fermenters of grass,’’ he admitted. “Our research explores the potential for producing something different from grass, to give farmers alternatives to simply going down the livestock production route.’’
Given the range of products that can be produced from grass, Dr Gallagher says further data and complex economic modelling is required to find the best routes to market.
Grass can be squeezed to produce both a fibre and a juice; this juice is a rich fermentation media that can be used for the production of a range of fuels and platform chemicals.
The fibre that remains after the liquid has been removed has many uses, such as an animal feed or as a feedstock for anaerobic digestion - it has even been used to make egg cartons.
There is also research into new crops which could provide an income for upland farmers, such as daffodils being grown to produce galantamine for use in the treatment of the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.
IBERS is also involved in projects aimed at making farms more efficient, such as measuring feed efficiency in sheep, led by Dr Diego Moya, Interdisciplinary Research Fellow in Animal Sciences.
In addition to learning more about these studies, farmers at the open day were given an insight into the European Innovation Partnership (EIP), a programme which funds groups of farmers and others, such as researchers and businesses, to work together to solve common agricultural problems.
One project that has received funding is the study into reducing antibiotics in lamb production through improved nutrition and hygiene, with the use of new and sustainable technology.
EIP, delivered in Wales through Menter a Busnes, is providing 45 projects with funding of up to £40,000 each.
EIP officer Owain Rowlands said the project aimed to strengthen research and innovation within the agricultural sector in Wales, bridging the gap between research and roll-out on farm.
Further support is available to each group through Farming Connect’s Knowledge Exchange Hub, a collaboration with IBERS, which will undertake background research to establish what is already known about a project topic.
The Knowledge Exchange Hub can also advise on how projects can be structured to get the best out of the funding applied for.
Farming Connect Red Meat Technical Officer, Catherine Nakielny, who facilitated the event, said agriculture and land management was constantly evolving and that the rate of that progression was speeding up.
“It is important for farmers to be aware of new ideas and potential markets to strengthen their businesses going forward,’’ she said.
“We are grateful to IBERS for giving farmers the opportunity to see the work being done on their behalf and I would encourage those who would like to know more to get in touch with their local Farming Connect development officer who can organise visits to IBERS for groups of farmers, discussion groups and students.’’