John Best is a pioneering farmer from Northern Ireland. He has been plying his trade for nearly 50 years, having graduated from university with a degree in agriculture.
Along with his two sons he is a mixed arable and beef farmer. His family has been working from this farm for more than 100 years.
He aims to keep his supply chains short and supply local markets with beans and oats. He also looks after a herd of Aberdeen Angus cattle.
He’s seen a lot of changes in the last few decades across the farming sector – but less so in terms of beef.
But that’s not stopping John from innovating. Most recently he has been trialling new technology such as RFID tags, DNA samples, together with traditional registration numbers for cattle that are collected at birth.
He’s interested in finding innovative ways to reduce their carbon footprint, and put figures around the performance of their animals. Looking for easy calving, and premium cuts. To understand how to select for them, you have to know what you have.
You can’t manage what you don’t measure. It’s about collating the data over a number of years, ease of calving, weight of the animal. Then spotting patterns and areas you can improve on, such as reducing feed.
In the past finding a prize bull was done visually by a judge at a show giving out awards.
Now it is about genotypes and smart tags. Being able to identify the animal for the whole of its life – using DNA samples in addition to the normal static tag in the ear. The other innovation is using smart tags on the animal to detect changes in its temperature. Which can act as an early warning light that something needs to change.
He says Northern Irish farmers can’t easily compete with Argentinian or Brazilian beef, but they can create premium products, rising above the commodity market. You do that by giving customer assurance at every step of the way.
John is excited by the opportunity of harnessing the blockchain to capture and verify carbon sequestration on farm, and that selling carbon credits is a very real opportunity for progressive farmers.
Carbon sequestration is the long-term removal, capture, or sequestration of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to slow or reverse atmospheric CO2 pollution helping to mitigate or reverse climate change.
John Best, Dom Burch
Dom Burch: Welcome back to the ubloquity podcast with me Dom Burch. I’m delighted this week on the podcast to welcome John Best. Now John is a mixed arable and beef farmer from Northern Ireland. With him and his two sons they are now a fourth generation family who are actually doing some really innovative and interesting things, which is why I invited John onto the podcast this week. John, welcome to the ubloquity podcast.
John Best: Thank you, Dom.
Dom Burch: So John, maybe just start by telling us a little bit about the setup you’ve got.
John Best: We have a family farm Poyntzpass, Co Armagh Northern Ireland. We have been on Acton House farm since 1920. Currently, we are predominantly arable, with a pedigree, Aberdeen Angus herd. I have been farming here for almost 50 years now, at the outset, came home from University with a degree in agriculture. We were predominantly suckler & beef farm finishing calves from our own suckler cows, and also finishing store cattle bought predominantly in the south of Ireland. In those days, beef involved really finishing animals of somewhere around about three year old, which is now perceived, quite rightly, as totally inefficient. In those days, it was a matter of, you know, the store period was important to have to get as much weight as possible on the animal. In those days, a lot of cattle were shipped live for slaughter to the UK. And it was really only in the last sort of 30, 40 years that the Northern Ireland beef industry actually started to slaughter their own animals, export carcasses, largely driven by membership of the EU and MCAs and so on. That’s where we were then a totally different scenario from where we are now.
Dom Burch: Now you’re a mixed arable farmer. So in addition to the beef side of things, you also grow your own beans, which you’ve used for feed and then you’ve got so much that now you can sell that onward. And also you grow oats that are for human consumption and milled what five miles down the road from you. So you know, what’s the thinking behind that.
John Best: So I suppose in essence, what we’re trying to do is keep our supply chain short, supply the local needs and supply the local market.
Dom Burch: Tell me a bit more about the beef side of things then.
John Best: We have a pedigree Aberdeen Angus beef herd, our market there is to supply bulls to local dairy herds, who once they have served their best cows with pedigree Holstein, they then use sweeper bulls, and Angus are a big part of that in Northern Ireland. One of the important things about the Angus cross is it must be easy calving and a small, reasonably small calf.
Dom Burch: So talk to me a little bit about then on the Aberdeen Angus side, and, you know, just what’s what have you been sort of testing and trialling over the last sort of 12, six, six to 12 months, how you tag those animals and how you can track them. Because there’s a whole load of new technology coming in from RFID tags to you know, using different apps on farm, just talk me through some of that John because that’s, I mean, that’s huge steps on, isn’t it from 10, 20, 30 years ago,
John Best: I suppose to put it in context, you’ve got to look at where the other livestock sectors in the UK have have moved in the last 20 or 30 years, you know, pigs now you have nucleus herds, disease free herds total, totally closed herds, they have improved their performance, their food conversion, milk production has improved and output from dairy cows have improved dramatically. Food conversion again, but yet the beef sector, where I started out, I guess, it’s probably much the same today. So there is vast scope for improvement in the efficiency of beef production, particularly now given all the talk and the publicity around carbon, methane emissions from livestock. The one way to reduce that is to improve the efficiency of your animal, if you can produce a kilo of beef from six kilos of feed, as opposed to nine kilos of feed, that has a huge impact on the carbon emissions from that animal and from that herd. So that’s really what we are now focusing on as pedigree breeders. We want to be able to put figures around the performance of our animals, our customers in dairy they want a bull that has a viable calf at birth, but that calf must be born without causing any stress to the cow. So basically, they want easy calving. They also want animals then when those animals go to finish are easy fleshed and well fleshed with good fat cover, good eye muscle area because that’s where the premium cuts come from. So all those characteristics are reasonably highly heritable. So we must select for them to understand how to select for we’ve got to understand what we have ourselves first of all.
Dom Burch: And it’s a classic thing, isn’t it, you can’t manage what you what you don’t measure. So just talk to me a bit about some of that, because you’re now gaining on so many different data points through the lifecycle of managing a herd. And then with that information, you’re really turning that into insights. So you can take the right actions can’t you. So you can actually start to manage things and make those improvements.
John Best: It’s about collating the data, and it does take time to build up, you can’t just do it on one year’s performance, you’ve got to measure your ease of carving, you’ve got to measure your growth rate, you then got to identify the superior animals against the inferior animals. For the whole of my lifetime, a lot of that assessment has been done visually, agricultural shows showing animals entering and a judge awarding a rosette. But really, that visual assessment does not give any indication whatsoever of an animal’s potential or their performance, we’ve now got to go down the route into Nomex. Understandin what genotypes influence wha traits and how we can select fo those in our herd. That’s wher the potential comes. And also you mentioned tags, to me tha the big thing about tagging i to be able to identify eac animal for the whole of it life. So if an animal loses tag, there is still a DNA recor of that tag it’s tagged the ay it’s born, that identity t at DNA stays with it until he lamb’s with the consumer on t eir plate. And I think, in Nort ern Ireland, we can’t compete ith Brazil or Argentina, or even the Midwest for beef that the ‘re going to produce beef uch cheaper than we are. But wha we can do is produce a pre ium product, give it identity, g ve it provenance give our consu er confidence in what they re buying is exactly what they re getting. Where it has been w at its lifecycle has been and th t animal has been looked after, e can raise our beef offeri g above the commodity market, e must have a USP for our produc , the way to do that is to gi e our customer assurance, the w y to give them assurance is o have lifetime identity, th t there can be no doubt where th t animal has been what h s happened to it during its life and how it has been
Dom Burch: And this isn’t just theory now is it this is actually pilot that you’ve been putting into place and you’ve actually been tagging animals on farm, just talk me through that because it sounds complicated. But it’s got to be simple and easy to do, hasn’t it as well as been able to capture the data, it’s got to be easy for the farmer on the farm, to do that processing to tag that animal. And then to be able to collect that data, as you say, over time, then you build up a much bigger picture
John Best: that animal really is uniquely identified at birth and cannot be tampered with cannot be changed. It’s not a complicated process. All animals have to be identified now at birth anyway That’s the law that happens worldwide, there are very few countries now that do not have an animal ID system, some sort or another and I suppose the key to it. And in our case is to make sure that ours is unique, that it is totally verifiable and never tampered with. At birth, you quite simply put the ear tag in the animal. As you’re putting the ear tag in, there’s a small cover of the tag, which takes us a tissue sample, totally painless. It’s just a little small, small nick that goes in an enclosed file that then goes for identification and verification of the DNA so that verifies the animal with that number that that tissue sample has come from them. That’s their DNA identification going forward. And the tag it can also be read electronically. So there’s no need when the animal moves for anything other than electronic identification. So there can be no visual errors and identify the number that’s picked up electronically. And that electronic identification follows the animal through the slaughter process right through to the packing Hall.
Dom Burch: And just that alone is just removing so much complexity, so many opportunities for somebody with a clipboard and a pen to write down the wrong number or to miss something, every point of the process, the more it’s digitised. And the more that it’s done through, you know, an automatic scan, and then you can verify that any point is just going to build so much more trust, isn’t it into that supply chain?
John Best: Yeah, trust and confidence and it’s about the consumer, you know, we have to be, we have to be aware that the consumer is king. And we have we have got to say this is why we are asking you to pay a premium for our product, because we’re demonstrating provenance right through the supply chain. One of the big developments going forward, which I’m very enthusiastic about, and which we’re looking at ourselves, I’ve done a bit of work there is a potential with the ear tag to have a means of measuring the animals temperature. So by monitoring temperature, you can you can confirm animal welfare, you can verify animal welfare through this animal’s life cycle as well. So the one tag potentially can do two roles identify the animal and also from a management point of view. identify any changes in temperature, a number changes when temperature can indicate an animal being sick. It can also indicate, you know, challenge in the animal’s diet, a small rise in temperature may show slight but stress, which could be the cause of dietary problems, could be foot problems, lots of things, there’s big potential there. And also, the record of the lifetimes temperature, also further reassures the customer of the welfare and provenance of that animal during his lifetime.
Dom Burch: So there’s, I mean, there’s just so much going onin just this one example. So you’ve got this simplified animal registration that and the digital tagging can be done in under 60 seconds, you’re then integrating and automating all that reporting, going out to independent third party labs that can validate the DNA. And then you’ve also got this kind of multi factor authentication obviously you’ve got the DNA, but you’re also then able to sort of triangulate that with the RFID tag, geo location using things like GPS on mobile phones, plus all of the obviously the official ID that you have to give from a government perspective, and all of those things going in together, are then helping record the animal’s location, its registration. And then potentially, I guess, going into declarations to government systems by using things like the blockchain, so that you can actually then start to piece together, every element of that animal’s life, when it gets into the supply chain. It’s been registered, you’ve got your provenance, and they also plugging that into government systems, too.
John Best: Yeah, animal transfers become paperless, but also totally transparent and much easier to follow. And the broader scheme gives opportunity for genetic improvement, because in the south of Ireland, they’re actually starting now to collate data from from abbatoirs on animals. If you have each animal’s DNA, you can then identify the sire of the dam. And you can quite quickly identify traits in different animals in different breeding so actually in the long term that will help identify superior genetics, and help both breeders and finishers of animals to identify animals that will grow quicker convert more efficiently, again, impacting on carbon emissions.
Dom Burch: So what would your message be to farmers who might be listening to this or people in the industry who perhaps haven’t quite got, you know, their heads into gear yet? That things like blockchain and this kind of technology, this smart tagging, is really going to move things forward. And it’s going to move at some pace now, isn’t it?
John Best: It is it is, you know, look at the improvement in the broiler and pig sectors. In articular, these are two ectors which never had any ubsidy. As long as I’ve been arming, pigs and poultry have ad to stand on their own two eet. So they have actually riven their own innovation. In he beef sector, we have always een very heavily supported, ubsidised. And I think that hat has inhibited in my mind evelopment and progress. Now we ave an opportunity that you now, the tools are there now or us to start on catch up and mproving our efficiency, making etter use of our resources riving down carbon, ultimately, t all comes down to the farmers wn bottom line. So you know, as ell as being good for the nimal as well as getting buy in rom our customers. So you know, t’s good for everybody.
Dom Burch: And one last thing I just wanted to talk about, then john was actually in this carbon world that we’re in and carbon credits, there is going to be opportunities. Now as farmers start to monitor every aspect of their, you know, their production, their businesses, that they’re going to start in some instances actually generating carbon credits. And using things like blockchain as an opportunity, then isn’t there to trade in those credits and start to get real benefit for the improvements that you’re making the reductions that you’re making in your production. But also, I guess, if you’ve got solar panels, or you’ve got some wind turbines and you’re generating electricity, you can start to monitor that and put that back into the grid and start to claim the credit for it.
John Best: Oh, undoubtedly, Dom, I mean that’s in the longer term, we are going to get paid for carbon and mean not even for farms that are generating electricity on farm. I think farms, a lot of amount of our management practice can actually be geared towards sequestering carbon, building up our soil and organic matter. We all have woodlands we have hedges just how we manage them, how we maybe plant trees in corners, all that will help us to sequester carbon. The key term will be again it’s like the cattle verifying and authenticating exactly what we’re doing come across a number of cases where you know, commercial businesses are saying, Oh, yes, we’re offsetting our carbon. I say how do you do that? Ah we’re supporting tree planting in somewhere in Africa or I say, you know, where are the trees Oh, we don’t know. We’ve just bought into a scheme and this is what they’re doing and they’ll send a brochure, you know, totally unverifiable. and definitely not authenticated. Probably the same scheme sold three or four times and benefiting no one. These same firms are now they are seriously interested in actually seeing carbon sequestration offsetting their carbon somewhere that they can see it, feel it, touch it, actually feel the benefit from it. And the place they can to do that is, in my mind, are farms. So our first step really has to be attaching measure, again, of what we are doing. And understand, you know, by building up soil organic matter, we are sequestering carbon. Once we’ve done that the next step is then to go out and sell thatt. And unless we can verify it, through blockchain to show that it does exist, it’s only being sold once and actually be able to give our customers who are wishing to offset carbon, something that is totally verifiable. And that to me, that is another big potential for blockchain.
Dom Burch: It’s all change, isn’t it? John? It’s all change.
John Best: Yeah, it is. And that’s all changed for the better, you know, nothing stays still. And I think it’s up to agriculture to seize, you know, the benefits that are out there. When I first started out you, you grew a crop, you produced an animal, you basically set it to market, your you felt it was your entitlement that somebody had to buy it. It wasn’t up to you to market it, it wasn’t up to you to produce what the market wanted. You produced a tonne of wheat, if you felt like it. And you said right, somebody has to buy this. We had a deficiency payment scheme then and then and that supported it. Now, I think we it is for the better. Really you have to look at what your market is. We have a market for livestock. We have a market for grain. And I believe going forward. We have a market for carbon, but we must be able it’s not just about saying what we’re doing. We must actually be able to verify it, measure it and authenticate it.
Dom Burch: john, it’s been an absolute pleasure catching up with you here on the podcast look forward to coming to visit you on the farm so we can actually see some of this in action. Thank you for sparing me the time