Farmer-led networks deliver innovations for egg production
An EU-funded project demonstrated how farmer-led networks can generate practical farm-level innovations. The project created networks in the laying hen sector that came up with solutions to make businesses more efficient and more sustainable.
© eyetronic #62661451, 2019 source: stock.adobe.com
Traditional models for innovation in agriculture involve scientists handing down solutions to the problems faced by farmers. An alternative partnership approach, where scientific and farming expertise is valued more equally, could enhance the development and sharing of innovations.
The EU-funded Hennovation project explored the potential of novel farmer-led networks, to address specific problems identified in the poultry industry. Researchers gained valuable experience in how to best contribute to the networks to help farmers adopt improved practices, and the solutions being developed could significantly enhance the competitiveness of the European livestock industry.
The challenge was to get farmers and scientists to work better together, and the context for this was the laying hen sector, says project coordinator David Main, of Bristol University in the UK. We showed that farmer-led networks with the right facilitation can generate practical farm-level innovations that are valued by others. It is a cost-efficient way of supporting innovation, because you are not paying researchers to do the trials. It is the farmers themselves who are organising into groups, using their own commercial units and collecting the data.
Networks in actions
The project established 19 networks in five countries to demonstrate how this pioneering approach can make businesses more efficient and sustainable. Each network addressed animal health and welfare challenges related to either reducing injury due to feather-pecking or finding new ways of handling end-of-lay birds.
Farmer networks are supported by professional facilitators, scientific researchers, veterinarians, farm advisors and market-driven actors, such as the egg-packing or retail sectors. The networks came up with a variety of technical innovations, from a new trolley design to depopulate hens at the end-of-lay to a different type of litter material to reduce stress and encourage natural behaviour. Several innovations were related to the introduction of a new protocol, for example, a new way of monitoring poultry red mite infestation and new relationships between value-chain actors.
Innovation is not only technical innovation, but also, for example, innovation in marketing end-of-lay meat or exploring new marketing opportunities for organic eggs and, of course, the social aspects of farmers coming together to solve their day-to-day problems, which is a social innovation, says project manager Lisa van Dijk.
While some of the solutions are context-specific, others can be applied across the sector; though the project team stress that these can be of equal value. For example, a group of organic poultry farmers had problems with predation and were unable to control the animals, so they introduced alpacas into their systems as a deterrent, explains van Dijk.
Facilitators and researchers
She believes the role of the professional facilitator is very important when working with farmers during the innovation process. Therefore, a key focus for expanding the approach has been training facilitators with skills in innovation support.
The partnership process was also new to the scientific researchers. Some of them were initially quite sceptical about the value of this approach, as it is traditionally scientists who are in charge of the design and research questions, whereas with this process farmers had control about what problem they wanted examined and what solutions they wanted to explore, says Main.
A EUR 2 million project can support 19 networks and deliver innovations that were valued by those groups. We think that is a cost-effective way of doing it, he adds.
In addition to facilitating the networks, the project provided financial support for prototypes and testing, with moderate resources also coming from market-driven actors.
The approach has been taken up by government agencies and industry groups. In the UK, DEFRA have picked up this approach and have flagged it in their policy going forward, Main says. In both Spain and Sweden, networks are working with industry and expanding the approach into different livestock sectors.