Skip to main content

Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - iSAGE (Innovation for Sustainable Sheep and Goat Production in Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-02-28

In marginal areas of Europe, sheep and goats are the most common form of traditional livestock farming. The latter is important because it helps keep natural resources healthy and utilises land that cannot otherwise be used to produce products for human consumption. Sheep and goat industries, however, have many challenges causing farmers to leave. The consumption of sheep and goat meat in Europe is declining, the climate and prices are fluctuating more and many farms rely on subsidies to survive. iSAGE is finding ways to make the EU sheep and goat sectors sustainable regardless of these external issues. Being a multifunctional sector, sheep and goat farming is expected by society to perform various roles; eg., support rural livelihoods that are connected to the cultural heritage, shaping rural identities and the way of living. For the wider society, it will also benefit from sheep and goat products that are of high quality, produced with higher animal welfare standards and processed, packaged, transported and sold in ways that consumers prefer. The overall objective is to improve sustainability of sheep and goat systems in Europe by making farms more profitable, increasing societal acceptance of sheep and goats and proposing ways to improve the sustainable use of natural resources. Additionally, by incorporating consumer attitudes, societal perceptions and end-users aspirations, iSAGE will contribute towards re-designing sheep and goat products (meat and dairy) and providing solutions for the industry including changing the design and management of farms and the way that sheep and goats are bred. Finally, iSAGE will also inform policies to increase the efficiency and secure the future of European sheep and goat production. The target audience is mainly policy/farmer organisations/NGOs/International organisations.
For the sheep and goat industry to further develop and meet both farmer and public expectations requires an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses. To assess the sustainability of sheep and goat farms across Europe iSAGE partners chose to adapt the Public Goods Tool (PG Tool), a farmer friendly multi-criteria analysis-based sustainability assessment tool addressing overarching environmental, economic, social and governance themes. Assessments were conducted by partners on 236 farms across Europe covering the spectrum of farm typologies defined by the iSAGE project. Sheep and goat farming systems are little innovative specially compared to dairy cows, beef, pig, and poultry. Slow adoption of innovation is a key challenge that the sector faces for its sustainability. It has been revealed that the main challenge of the sheep and goat sector in Europe is the socioeconomic and structural constrains that prevent farmer’s acceptance and uptake of innovations at farm level. The former include farmer’s reluctance to modify farming practices, lack of innovation culture across farmer communities, limited farmer skills and knowledge in some areas, low farmer investment capacity, ageing of farmer populations and rural areas depopulation trends. The latter are related to the lack of strong and well-organized, long-term, farmer collaboration where process and analyzing of farm data is a key component. The role of farmers’ institutions and collective structures (e.g. farmers levy organizations, breeders’ associations, cooperatives, etc.) is decisive in regulating and managing such collaboration. At sector level, internal competence between value chain stakeholder (e.g. farmers, processors, distributors, retailers) within the sector reduces its competitiveness in international markets but also in relation to other livestock species and to non-livestock food products. The latest advances in molecular genetics and DNA analysis have boosted the development of new tools in breeding programs, among others the inclusion of genomic information in the breeding programs or the management of major genes. iSAGE case studies showed that, if the aim is to make farmers modify their practices to reduce their environmental impact, the most effective approach would be for extension programs to emphasize farm innovation that increase farm efficiency (increasing farm profit) and reduce at the same time the farm environmental impact. There is enough room for product and process innovation in meat sheep production. New packaging and cuts, development of quality labels or other certification and traceability systems and new marketing campaigns to make society aware of the environmental and social services of sheep and goat farming systems are key strategies. Participatory farmer-group training programmes seem to be a strategy with high potential to develop a more knowledgeable and competent farming workforce. The identified requirements are National organisations with regional branches, strong national network of farms, businesses, organizations and reliable funding sources. iSAGE is also contributing to GHG debate, with suggestions for new calculations for the global warming effect of CH4, the policy implications from the isage case studies and potential of breeding for resilience to climate change. iSAGE has little to offer on biodiversity but the issue is also addressed in relation to main outputs from the work and the policy implications. A new holistic farm level model has been developed and preliminarily tested, combining a whole-farm mathematical simulation model (SIMSR) and a linear programming optimization model (LP iSAGE) for sheep and goat farms. Research on genetic traits regarding efficiency and resilience is ongoing and relevant genetic parameters have been estimated along with novel animal resilience and adaptability phenotypes based on joint analyses of milk records and weather variables. The first computational platform for the assessment of breeding strategies has been established. The outputs of the project are communicated at various levels through scientific publications, participation to conferences and awareness-raising events.
The progress achieved during the 2nd 18-month period of iSAGE is demonstrating further its novelty in various aspects of the operation of sheep and goat systems in Europe. Some of the expected results which confirm such potential are
● Holistic sustainability assessments which not only demonstrate the performance of the prevailing sheep and goat farm types in Europe, but also provide insights as to the usability of the tool used to make such estimations
● Quantitative estimations of strengths and bottlenecks in the consumption of sheep and goat products, which can be readily used in the elaboration of integrated strategies to boost consumption across the continent
● Proposal of key innovations for the sector, which are acceptable by stakeholders and have been tested in various environments across the continent, therefore being ready to be adopted