Young scientists look for the next breakthrough in livestock feeding

The BT Young Scientist winner will be announced tomorrow. We look at six farming-related projects

From the boots that we wear to the machines that we drive, science and technology help us in so many ways on the farm.

The last generation saw the greatest advances in agricultural technology, innovations that literally took them from the dark ages to modern times.

In this present age, to my mind, the greatest improvement in our lives has been the arrival of the round bale.

A round bale is a clean, portable, and overall excellent way of saving fodder.

A round bale of straw can fit snugly in the back of my old Hilux.

Round bales of hay have saved a whole generation of farmers from back trouble. And as for the round bale of silage, at the moment I’m using silage bales from 2014 and like a good wine, time has done them little harm.

The silage is going down the hatch the very same way as it always has.

In many ways, we in the farming community owe a great deal to the scientific community, and that is why we take a look at some of the projects that contain a farming flair each year on this week, in the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition, in Dublin.

We begin by focusing appropriately enough on a project that involves round bale silage. Fifth year students Marian Quaid, David Carroll and Orla Daly of Coláiste Iósaef, Kilmallock, Co Limerick, have a project on ‘Edible and Environmentally Friendly Bale Netting.’

Marian explained it all to me.

“After speaking to a number of local farmers, and a vet in the Kilmallock Veterinary Clinic, in January, 2015, we identified a problem that has gone unnoticed, and decided to make an improvement in this area.

“White netting in a bale of hay or silage can be a problem for farmers.

"It can be very time consuming to remove, and can be harmful to animals, if not removed correctly, or if digested.”

So the team from Coláiste Iósaef have created a biodegradable plastic, that can be safely eaten by animals.

“The use of these biodegradable plastics can help to reduce pollution, and will decompose naturally with the help of oxygen, light or heat, if not eaten.

"The main benefit to the farmer is that it is not harmful to the animal if ingested, it is non-toxic.

“We have been developing our bioplastic since January 2015, and there is still more testing to be done on it, but we think that it is a real alternative to current products on the market, and of far more benefit to our environment,” David Carroll concluded.

Young scientists look for the next breakthrough in livestock feeding

Staying on the subject of silage and edible wrapping, Tierna Maguire, a transition year student at Our Lady’s Bower, Athlone, Co Westmeath, has been busy too, working on an alternative to silage wrap which is also edible, biodegradable and nutritious for the cattle.

Tierna lives on a 34-hectare calf-to-beef farm in Rhode, Co Offaly, and is very interested in farming and agriculture.

She told me about her BT project.

“I got the idea when I noticed the amount of waste polythene from the conventional silage wrap, while tidying up the farm with my father.

"I also discovered that this packaging is expensive to buy and dispose of, and is a nuisance waste.

"So I produced a material that is nutritious, pliable, palatable, and has a waterproof layer and a preservative.

"If it catches on, there would be no more need of plastic.”

Tierna tested her product on her father’s silage, and discovered that it preserves the grass every bit as well as conventional polythene.

She has also tested her product on her father’s cattle, and it was very well received by the herd.

Feeding livestock is also the subject area of Josh Dunican and Adam Henry, both 14 years old and second year students of Gallen Community School, Ferbane, Co Offaly.

At this year’s BT competition, they have an exhibit they call the ‘Farm Friendly Feeder’.

Josh explains: “We both enjoy designing and making things out of timber and metal, and have a huge interest in farming technology.

One of the problems that we observed on farms was how much silage was wasted when feeding cattle in outdoor feeders and, more importantly, how much of the silage nutrients were lost by leaving the silage exposed to the Irish weather in the feeders left out in the open, in the field.

“We considered this to be a major problem for farmers, as it costs a lot of money every year to harvest silage.

"So we decided to design a new style of cattle feeder that protected the silage from the effects of rainwater and animal urine and faeces, while also collecting rainwater to be made available in a trough for the cattle to drink.

"We also included a creep feeder for hassle-free feeding of meal.”

Well, I’m all for that lads, and good luck in the competition.

Next we go to two young scientists from St. Brogans College, Bandon, Co Cork. Mark Shorten from Newcestown and Conor Lehane from Timoleague are transition students, and their project is concerned with the amount of trichloromethane found in milk.

I had never heard of trichloromethane. So we will let the bright students tell us about it.

Mark explained: “Trichloromethane or TCM is a residue in milk caused by the interaction of chlorine (from cleaning detergents) and milk.

"It is also known as chloroform. TCM in milk must be at levels less than 0.002mg/kg, to meet production guidelines to exporting countries.

“Maintaining low milk TCM levels on the farm is achieved in most instances by practicing correct milking equipment cleaning procedures.

“While TCM levels in Irish products are well within required limits, competition between different exporting countries means that for Ireland’s product to be at the forefront, it is now necessary to have very low levels.

“As the industry develops and expands over the coming decade, it will be vital that the clean, green image of the Irish dairy industry is linked to quality milk production.

“We felt many farmers are not aware of TCM in milk. In addition, we thought that many farmers do not know the effects of TCM on export markets.

“Therefore, in this project, we wanted to create awareness about TCM by creating and sending out a survey to dairy farmers in West Cork.

“We talked to farmers at a dairy conference held in the Celtic Ross Hotel about TCM.

"A newsletter indicating the correct washing procedure was distributed to farmers. In addition, Teagasc and Moorepark were notified about the results of our project.

The students also went on to develop an indicator strip which they call the “TCM strip”, which can be used to test for the presence of chlorine in the milk line.

A project close to my own heart was undertaken by two transition year students from Castlecomer Community School, Co Kilkenny.

Sophie Finn and Emma Wallace are attempting to find out how clever sheep really are! Sophie Finn explains: “We came across an article on the Telegraph website saying that sheep were actually quite intelligent and, as my father is a sheep farmer, we decided to try and find out for ourselves.

“So we tested different breeds with food-based intelligent tests, to see if there was a difference in the breeds with regards to intelligence.

"These tests essentially involved placing food in different situations and seeing how quickly the sheep were able to get the food.

“We repeated these tests several times over the last few months to see if any of the breeds were able to learn to solve the problem more quickly than others.”

And how smart were Sophie’s dad’s sheep? Well, you will just have to go to the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition to find out, won’t you?


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