Two of the five winners of national agricultural award from Writtle College!

January 2013

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(NOTE: This is an archived press release.)

Two out of the five winners of a prestigious national agricultural award are Writtle College students.

Stephanie Collingbourne and Francine Gilman have been given the NFU Mutual Centenary Award 2012 - a bursary from The NFU Mutual Charitable Trust.

The award scheme, launched by large rural insurer NFU Mutual to celebrate its 100th birthday in 2010, is given to potential rural leaders of the future.

The annual bursaries – which pay 75% of the course fees for selected postgraduate students in agriculture -are designed to not only help the individual students but also benefit the agricultural industry at large.

Stephanie, from South Woodham Ferrers, has just started a PhD in Agriculture at Writtle College. Her research looks at cross breeding rare breed pigs with commercial breeds to conserve the beneficial characteristics of the rare breeds, enhance the productivity traits of commercial breeds, whilst supressing the negative characteristics of the rare breeds – research that has not been done in a scientifically or statistically verifiable way since the 1800s and which could have a global application.

Francine, from Colchester, is reading an MSc Livestock Production Science, will be researching the effect of essential oils on sheep digestion – and seeing if it can have a positive impact on climate change by reducing methane emissions from sheep.

Stephanie started at Writtle College when she was 16, doing a BTEC National Diploma in Animal Management, before going on to study a BSc in Farm Livestock Production.

The 22-year-old said: “It’s a fantastic achievement to win this award. I am hoping this will help me to get my work out there and apply it to industry.

“My PhD is in pig genetics looking at the sustainability of rare breeds. I will be cross-breeding rare breed genetics with commercial breeds, to conserve the rare breed genetics and incorporate them into commercial breeds.

“The rare breeds have beneficial traits that I hope to conserve through crossbreeding, however the commercial traits will aid in suppressing the bad characteristics of the rare breeds, such as slow growth, inefficient feed utilisation and high levels of intramuscular fat. The rare breeds have higher piglet survivability, greater litter sizes, higher milk yields and apparently they also have better meat. The commercial breeds should bring down the fatness of the rare breeds, which you can get penalised for.

“The global population is doubling and we need to look at a way of sustaining native breeds and increasing productivity. My research will impact on the industry by improving the utilisation of rare breeds and the productivity of rare and commercial breeds. This research could be applied internationally and I hope to go to Mexico as part of my PhD to look at their rare and commercial breeds.

“Cross breeding to conserve rare breeds has never been done before in a scientifically or statistically verifiable way to see if it is viable. The last research on rare breeds cross-breeding happened in the 1800s, so this is new territory. The NFU are looking at taking this research and applying it to sheep and cattle too.”

The rare breeds Stephanie will be using are the Gloucester Old Spots, which are a ‘minority’ specie, the Berkshire, which is on the ‘at risk’ list, and the British Lop, which is on the vulnerable list, meaning there are between 200-300 breeding females left.

Stephanie will be undertaking the research - expected to take four years - at the College farm, using semen from the rare breeds. There will be three litters a year, one from each rare breed, as well as a control – a normal commercial breed (Large White x Landrace).

Francine is studying animal physiology, nutrition and biochemistry as part of her Masters. She will start her dissertation on ruminant digestion in the New Year, using sheep at the College farm.

The 24-year-old explains: “I will be looking at how essential oils can have an effect on ruminant fermentation characteristics. The essential oils are split into components so you can see the interactions between each one. One of essential oils is Carvacrol, which is an Oregano derivative. Each component will have between 60 and 300 minor components. I will look at the impact the essential oils have on how the sheep metabolise to see if they help them to convert their feed more efficiently and cause less nutrition wastage.

“This research could have an impact on climate change as I am expecting to see that the essential oils will reduce gas emissions from ruminants.”

Francine, who wants to pursue a career in livestock nutrition, said of the NFU Mutual award: “Receiving the centenary award has made a huge difference to me as I am now able to devote more time to my studies and achieving the best results that I can. Also, knowing that I have a company like NFU Mutual supporting and believing in me is a massive confidence boost.”

The other winners of the NFU Mutual Centenary Award were students from the Royal Agricultural College, the University of Reading and the University of Hertfordshire.

Dr Carlos de Luna, Principal Lecturer in Animal Science and College Research Coordinator, said: “The awarding of an NFU Mutual Centenary Award is an outstanding achievement for any postgraduate student.

“Stephanie and Francine are excellent students and we congratulate them for the distinction.

“The fact that Writtle College was awarded two bursaries, out of five, this year speaks of the College’s commitment to the advancement and sustainability of agriculture in the 21st Century.”

To learn more about postgraduate research opportunities at Writtle College, visit