Research themes

Research themes are being developed via consultations with the farmer participatory research networks, organic sector bodies and other industry partners and stakeholders. They will be regularly reviewed by the Industry Advisory Group.

The development of research themes for the Centre is ongoing; the following themes are likely to be included: 

  1. Crop and livestock breeding/selection for organic and low-input systems
  2. Crop management systems development (rotations, crop protection, fertilisation, tillage)
  3. Agricultural engineering (anaerobic digesting/composting for precision organic fertiliser production; sensor/GPS-guided mechanical weed control)
  4. Agribusiness and environmental economics
  5. Consumer studies and marketing
  6. Environmental and biodiversity impacts of traditional versus organic farming practices
  7. Social licence – impact and social perception of the organics industry
  8. Biological and ecological profiling
  9. Food composition and pesticide analyses; Environmental Analysis Laboratory
  10. Health and nutrition impacts of an organic diet compared with traditional diets

Case-studies of larger ongoing of new R&D project focused on the needs of the organic farming sector are described below.

CASE STUDY 1 Effect of grass-fed dairy systems on milk quality

Researchers from the SCU Centre of Organic Research were part of an international team reporting that cows fed a 100 percent organic grass/legume-based diet produced milk with elevated levels of omega-3 and CLA. They joined scientists from University of Minnesota, Johns Hopkins University, UK’s Newcastle University and Denmark’s Aarhus University Hospital who reported that grass-fed organic milk contained a markedly healthier balance of fatty acids.
The analysis of 1160 milk samples over three years in the US found that the organic feedbase provided by far the highest level of health-boosting omega-3s, with a 147% increase over conventional milk. It also had the highest average level of another healthy fatty acid, CLA, and contained 52% less undesirable omega-6 than conventional milk.

Benbrook, C.M., Davis, D.R., Heins, B.J., Latif, M.A., Leifert, C., Peterman, L., Butler, G., Faergerman, O., Abel-Caines, S., Baranski, M. (2018) Enhancing the fatty acid profile of milk through forage-based rations, with nutrition modelling of diet outcomes. Food Science and Nutrition published online.

CASE STUDY 2 Effect of dairy genetics on milk quality and yield; interaction with diet (grass vs grain-fed)

SCU researchers studying the effect of Brown Swiss genetics and feeding regimes (grain versus forage rich diets) found that cows with a high proportion of traditional Braunvieh genetics produced similar milk yields, but substantially higher omega-3 fatty acid concentrations than cows with a high proportion of US Brown-Swiss genetics when high forage intake (=grass-fed) diets. There were also significant differences for other milk quality components. In contrast, when high concentrate (=grain-fed) diets were used, cows with a high proportion of US-Brown Swiss genetics had a higher milk yield and a more similar milk fat composition compared to cows with a high proportion of traditional Braunvieh genetics. The US Brown Swiss breed was developed from traditional Braunvieh that was brought to the US by emigrants from Europe in the 18th and 19th century and then strongly selected for high milk yield capacity often on high-grain diets. Results from the study suggest that the use of traditional Braunvieh genetics in grazing systems (e.g. organic or grass-fed production) will deliver milk with a higher nutritional quality, while not resulting in substantially lower milk yields than the used of US Brown Swiss genetics. It also suggests that US Brown Swiss genetics will increase productivity in more intensive conventional (=grainfed) systems, but might require better-quality grazing swards and/or higher concentrate inputs to deliver the milk yield potential of cows. The study also involved researchers from Reading and Newcastle Universities in the UK, The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture (FiBL) in Switzerland, the University of Padua in Italy and the University of Oslo in Norway.

Stergiadis, S., Bieber, A., Chatzidimitriou, E., Franceschin, E., Isensee, A., Rempelos, L., Baranski, M., Maurer, V., Cozzi, G, Bapst, B., Butler, G. and Leifert, C. (2018) Impact of US Brown Swiss genetics on milk quality from low-input herds in Switzerland: interactions with season. Food Science published online.

CASE STUDY 3 ECO-BREEDS Increasing the efficiency and competitiveness of organic crop breeding 

The overall aim of the project is to will improve the availability of seed and varieties suitable for organic and low- input production. Activities will focus on four crop species, selected for their potential contribution to increase competitiveness of the organic sector, i.e. common wheat, potato, soybean and common buckwheat.

The project will develop (a) methods, strategies and infrastructures for organic breeding, (b) varieties with improved stress resistance, resource use efficiency and quality and (c) improved methods for the production of high quality organic seed. The specific objectives are: 

(i) To increase the availability of seeds and varieties for the organic and low-input sector
(ii) To identify traits and combinations of traits suited to organic and low-input production environment including high nutrient use efficiency and weed competitiveness/allelopathy
(iii) To increase breeding activities for organic and low-input crop production. ECOBREED will increase the competitiveness of the organic and low-input breeding and farming sectors by:

  • Identifying genetic and phenotypic variation in morphological, abiotic/biotic tolerance/resistance and nutritional quality traits that can be used in organic breeding
  • Evaluation of the potential of genetic variation for enhanced nutrient acquisitionEvaluation of the potential for increased weed competitiveness and control
  • Optimisation of seed production/multiplication via improved agronomic and seed treatment protocols
  • Developing efficient, ready-to-use farmer participatory breeding systems
  • Pre-breeding of elite varieties for improved agronomic performance, biotic/abiotic stress resistance/tolerance and nutritional quality
  • Development of training programmes in
    (a) genomic tools/techniques, (b) PPB and
    (c) use and application of improved phenotyping capabilities
  • Ensuring optimum and rapid utilisation and exploitation of project deliverables and innovations by relevant industry and other user/stakeholder groups.

CASE STUDY 4 Waste recycling as fertiliser 

A key facet of organic farming is the cycling nutrients in a closed loop system. Because many organic food products are sold off-farm, closing the nutrient loop involves nutrients recapture from food processing wastes and biosolids from sewage treatment plants.  Around the world technologies are now emerging that can turn solid wastes into profit through their conversion into organic fertilisers and energy. However these technologies are poorly developed in Australia. 

The Centre for Organics Research has recently secured funding from the Cooperative Research Centre for Contamination Assessment and Remediation of the Environment (CRC CARE) to study ways of converting organic wastes into soil amendments and energy. 

The project is strongly supported by the Richmond Valley Council, NORCO and Richmond Dairies, all of which have collectively contributed to the study. The two-year project will focus on applying techniques such as pyrolysis, hydrothermal carbonisation and anaerobic digestion to dairy and human wastes in the Northern Rivers, which can be used as a model for other regions of Australia. Beyond the two-year project, it is anticipated that the amendments created will be assessed for agronomic benefits in organic farming systems within the region.