Near perfect ‘digital twin’ will help reduce climate-related and other impacts of meat eating

  • 14
  • DEC
  • 2021

Scientists in Devon have simulated the intricate workings of a livestock farm, accurately mimicking grass growth, the amount of beef and lamb it produces, and the greenhouse gas emissions of its animals.

Writing in the journal Agricultural Systems, the team from Rothamsted Research say the model can be used to predict what impact proposed changes to farming practices, such as different animal breeds or forage plant species, will have.

Their computer simulation accurately recreates the journey of carbon, nitrogen and other climate affecting chemicals as they pass from the soil, through vegetation into grazing animals – and back out again into the environment.

Lead author Dr Lianhai Wu said: “Our computer model accurately predicts animal and grass growth, greenhouse gas emissions, as well as nutrient and water cycling by taking into account the effects of factors such as livestock breed, climate, soil types and feed quality and quantity.

“The model could potentially integrate economic, environmental and social factors as well to provide decision makers with the ability to forecast, interpret and respond to potential threats or opportunities for UK livestock farmers.”

The model is based on data from Rothamsted’s experimental livestock farm near Okehampton. The North Wyke Farm Platform or  ‘farm lab’ is the most instrumented in the world, where a variety of sensors and other apparatus have been measuring nutrients as they pass through the farm over the last decade.

Every key macro nutrient is accounted for, whether it is in the soil, vegetation or animal – and also how much is lost as pollution into rivers or the atmosphere.

Simulated animal growth from the model was validated using liveweight data from over 200 beef cattle and 900 lambs collected from the ‘farm lab’ between 2011 and 2018.

The model showed significant differences in growth rate, carbon dioxide and methane emissions between different sheep breeds, but less differences between the cattle breeds.

Dr Wu said: “We are at a critical juncture for global livestock production as we face competing requirements for maximal productivity on one hand and minimal pollution on the other. Ruminants make an important contribution to global food security by converting feed that is unsuitable for human consumption into high value food protein, demand for which is currently increasing at an unprecedented rate because of increasing global population and income levels.”

Reduction in red meat and dairy intake is increasingly seen as a pathway to improving human and environmental health, but globally, ruminant livestock will be important for the foreseeable future and finding ways to make production sustainable are being urgently sought, say the team.

“As a consequence, there is a call to ‘redesign’ livestock systems, including the integration of both crops and livestock. These more complex systems can be developed and analysed using models such as this one that can predict system responses to environment and management, without the need for lengthy real-world experiments,” says Dr Wu.

Although the model was validated with data specific to Southwest England and for a permanent pasture grazing system, the model has clear potential to explore more innovative practices to maintain or increase livestock production whilst reducing adverse environment impacts across different livestock breeds, climates and soil types, he added.

“Factors affecting production efficiency, product quality, and consumer acceptability, such as animal fertility, health and welfare, will ultimately define the sustainability – and future - of ruminant production systems.”

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
More information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes

About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.