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Practice-led innovation supported by science and market-driven actors in the laying hen and other livestock sectors

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - Hennovation (Practice-led innovation supported by science and market-driven actors in the laying hen and other livestock sectors)

Reporting period: 2016-03-01 to 2017-08-31

The HENNOVATION project, a thematic network funded under the topic 'Closing the research and innovation divide: the crucial role of innovation support services and knowledge exchange’ ( part of the Horizon 2020 EU Research and Innovation programme), promoted practice-driven innovation through the establishment of innovation networks of producers or those associated with the hen-processing industry to proactively search for, share and use new ideas to improve hen welfare and the efficiency and sustainability of laying-hen systems. The project encouraged a move away from the traditional model of science providing solutions for practice towards a more partnership approach where expertise from science and practice were valued more equally.

The Hennovation project proposed the EU laying hen sector as a case study because of the complexity of the market and legislative contexts of egg production including consumer animal welfare interest in the sector, changes in the supply associated with mandatory method of production labelling (Commission Regulation EC No 589/2008) and legislation changes associated with cage systems (Council Directive 1999/74/EC). In this complex environment, many laying hen producers across the EU were dealing with similar animal health and welfare challenges such as the prevalence of welfare issues related to injurious pecking and the handling, transport and slaughter of end of lay hens.

During the 32-month project the 19 networks were established including farmers, processors, veterinarians, technical advisors, market representatives and researchers. These networks, supported by a network facilitator, worked collaboratively to find solutions for important husbandry challenges. The project demonstrated that this practice-driven approach can be a major stimulus for innovation with several networks generating novel ideas and testing them in their commercial context. The complexity and the novelty of the innovations was significant, especially considering concurrent outbreaks of Avian Influenza and the relatively limited timescale of the project.

The research work done by the project showed that successful multi-actor, practice-driven innovation networks depend upon active participation from all involved, professional facilitation, moderate resource support and access to relevant expertise.
During the 32-month project the 19 networks were established in five European countries across the Czech-Republic, The Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Fifteen networks focused on finding practical solutions to problems related to feather (or injurious) pecking on-farm. Four further networks focused on practice-led innovation in the economically challenging handling and use of end-of lay hens. Facilitators provided by the project supported the networks through six critical steps: problem identification, generation of ideas, planning, small scale trials, implementation and sharing with others. In addition to helping source relevant technical information, the project also provided some financial support for prototype and testing costs.

During the project, the Hennovation networks tackled a range of technical challenges through the development of different types of innovations. Most ideas tested were incremental, some were more radical yet both were equally valued and important to increase motivation and build the capacity of the network to innovate. Alongside technical ‘hard’ or product innovations (e.g. new type of litter material to reduce stress and encourage natural behaviour or the use of alpacas in organic systems to reduce predation), a variety of ‘soft’ innovations emerged (e.g. a new way of marketing low valued hen meat and new relationships between production chain actors such as pullet rearers). Some ideas developed and tested were innovative in a specific farm context though not necessarily innovative for the laying-hen sector. Others had a potential to have a great impact on the sector.

A knowledge base developed by the project, operationalised in the form of a wiki (www.HenHub.eu) provided an information resource for advisors and producers to comment and add their knowledge thereby integrating science and practical knowledge. A variety of materials were developed for the exploitation of the project result and integrating existing (scientific) as well as newly co-generated knowledge; such as extension manuals on Feather Peaking and the End-of Lay, an online training course, 38 Practice Abstracts and five Technical notes. Guidelines for network facilitation and a Hennovation video, explaining the practice-driven approach, were also developed and available online.
The farmers and processors involved in the project were enthusiastic and committing significant time to the network’s activities. This is well summarised by the Project Advisory Board that suggested that “The focus on producer-led innovation is what makes the project unique and important, bridging the gap between policy and science, and producer and industry needs and realities”. The board suggested that “The Hennovation project shows there is interest for producer-led innovation and that the industry is willing to contribute their time and effort to engage in both the facilitation process and the development and implementation of innovative practice.” The engagement, enthusiasm and expertise of the network members was the fundamental resource for agricultural innovation.
To encourage the development of a more facilitative and practice-driven model of innovation with sustainable agricultural systems, the following pathways for optimisation should be pursued:
- That attention be given to the role and support of facilitation in innovation, leading to the establishment of specific innovative facilitator training and support within relevant agricultural and scientific institutions;
- That the inherent social capital of local farming communities and groups be understood as a useful resource in the constitution of farmer networks to support innovative solutions to real-world practical issues;
- That access to relatively small amounts of funding for the establishment of networks and the pursuit of experiments for innovative solutions be simplified and made easier for farmer networks seeking to trial innovative ideas;
- That effort be made to encourage the establishment of partnerships between relevant academic and scientific institutions and other multiple actors to help generate cooperative and co-innovative partnerships with farmers and the farming sector for the development and pursuit of innovative solutions and practices;
- That recognition be given to the different ways of ‘doing science’ and the importance of engaging local actors, whether farmers or others, in both the identification of problems (and potential solutions) and in the undertaking (where appropriate) of on-farm research. Often, practice led innovation is:
• technology ‘lite’
• low-cost
• practice-driven rather than experimentally-driven
• sometimes soft (about process) rather than hard (about things)
• otherwise hard (about things) rather than soft (about process)
• problem-solving and responsive rather than prospective and experimental
• generative, rather than reductive
• observational rather than empirical

Recognising the value of this as a ‘science’ and its product as ‘innovation’ is a significant step in resolving the longstanding and enduring ‘science/innovation gap’.