The conversation: “It's always a case of finding the right balance”

8 December 2020

Nick Major in conversation with Rosemarijn Gerritsen, Innovation Manager NIC Swine

Sustainable livestock farming, not only today, but also in the future - how do you work towards that? This is the key question of Rosemarijn Gerritsen's work as the Innovation Manager for sows and finishers at ForFarmers’ Nutrition Innovation Centre (NIC). In her role, she translates scientific research into day-to-day practice. Though, it's not quite as straightforward as it seems, as you have to take into account factors such as cost prices and practical feasibility. Nick Major discusses this with her, as well as our new sustainability strategy, Going Circular.

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Nick Major skyping from the UK with Rosemarijn Gerritsen in the Netherlands

I'm always thinking about it

Nick: “What does sustainability mean to you?”
Rosemarijn: “For me, it’s about finding a good balance between people, animals, economics and the environment. I think we are all striving to have enjoyable and comfortable lives. However, we need to be mindful of what we are doing and the impact on the environment, so future generations can also enjoy their lives. However, I believe that we also have to be careful not to go too far in our approach, but instead find a balance.”

Nick: “How does that translate to your day-to-day work?”
Rosemarijn: “I'm always thinking about it. At the NIC, we are always looking for ways to help our customers – the farmers – to achieve the best technical and financial results. We look at the needs of the animals and try to adapt the composition of our feeds to them as optimally as possible. We explore ways to ensure that the animals can feed in the most efficient way possible, to improve the feed conversion. This is also a case of striking the right balance. A lack of nutrients can cause health problems. However, adding too much is not good either, as the excess goes unused and is eliminated via manure and urine.”

It's a real puzzle

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Nick: “Doesn't there come a point when you have found the ideal balance?”
Rosemarijn: “No, we are always gaining more knowledge, which means our insight is evolving. The genetic development of animals – in my case pigs – continues and that influences the nutritional needs of the animal. I have a clear example of this, but granted a rather technical one: earlier this year, we completed research into the lysine needs of the current generation of finishers. Lysine is an amino acid and one of the most important building blocks for protein, and therefore growth. Today's finishers have an enormous growth capacity. To utilise this, they need more lysine. Pigs cannot make lysine themselves; they have to absorb it via feed. From our research, we discovered that the lysine needs, particularly in the first five weeks that the animals are in the stable, are much higher than we originally believed. We are now applying this knowledge to our ULTRA finisher feeds.”

Nick: “Is it possible to directly transfer that knowledge to the composition of the feed?”
Rosemarijn: “Haha, no, there are more factors involved. Which raw materials are we going to use? How does that affect the cost price? Does it influence the nitrogen and phosphate content of the feed? Is it too high? It's a real puzzle!”

Nick: “Do you have another example of research where sustainability plays a role?”
Rosemarijn: “I do. I'm currently busy with data projects for sows and finishers aimed at precision feeding. This is interesting to both our customers and ForFarmers. Customers will be able to feed their animals much more precisely, according to the needs. The feed will be better utilised and there will be less waste. And ForFarmers can use this data to more accurately schedule when the customer needs more feed. This offers possibilities for organising the production and transport in a more efficient, and therefore more sustainable, way.”

The focus varies per country

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Nick: “Going Circular is an important part of the new strategy. What impact does it have on your work?”
Rosemarijn: “It directly affects us at NIC. As an innovation manager, I'm not only thinking about today and tomorrow, but also further in the future. In which direction will the market move in the coming years, what do customers need, and how can ForFarmers help them? How can we continue to differentiate ourselves? Going Circular is part of that. Sustainability is becoming more important, which is evident from the discussions I have with colleagues in different countries. However, the focus varies in each country. In the UK, for example, they want alternatives to soy, but in the Netherlands, nitrogen is the talking point.”

Nick: “Have you noticed that sustainability is higher on the agenda for retailers and processors too?”
Rosemarijn: “In any case, we do get more questions from them about the feed. For example, the origins of the raw materials, whether they come from the EU or further afield, whether we can make soy-free feeds, etc. If you want to use other raw materials, such as insects, you need to go through the authorisation processes. You need to approach that as a chain, not as an individual producer. And we always have to take into account the effect of the raw materials on the cost price, the growth of animals, and so forth.”

We are doing our bit

Nick: “How do you think ForFarmers is doing on the sustainability front?”
Rosemarijn: “It’s good that it’s one of the building blocks of the new strategy. We can also use it to differentiate ourselves. The challenge is to ensure that the needs and desires of the customer remain central. Unfortunately, sustainable solutions are not always the cheapest. This means that there is sometimes a conflict between sustainability and the cost price when developing the feed compositions. We always have to find a balance, so our customers can still make a profit.”

Nick: “What role does sustainability play in your private life?”
Rosemarijn: “I'm fortunate to live on an old farm with some land. You wouldn't necessarily view an old farm as being sustainable. However, with solar panels on the shed and panels that heat up the water, we can do our bit. That's what we are looking into, but we still enjoy eating meat. It's important to find a good balance between the triad of environment, economics and what you as an individual are comfortable with.”

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Solar panels on the shed at Rosemarijn's home