Farmers must plan for a ‘rainy day’

Milk price volatility will remain a major challenge for the dairy sector, according to Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) chief executive Dr Sinclair Mayne.

“Producers are enjoying a period of reasonable returns at the present time,” he said.

Leading AFBI researchers presented key findings from their research at the Dairy Open Day held at AFBI Hillsborough on 6th June.

Leading AFBI researchers presented key findings from their research at the Dairy Open Day held at AFBI Hillsborough on 6th June.

“But they must also plan for a future period when this may not be the case. Money made now must be re-invested in ways that will help deliver a sustainable future for the industry as a whole.”

Mayne was one of the speakers at AFBI’s 2018 Dairy Innovation Day. He confirmed that milk output in Northern Ireland had doubled over the past three decades.

“The scale of the increase is greater than that achieved in any other part of the UK or Ireland,” he added.

“In tandem with this we have seen a significant increase in individual cow yields with herd size also increasing.

“In contrast, milk from forage levels have fallen to an average of 2,500L/cow. Previously this figure sat at 3,200L.”

The AFBI representative continued: “Many of our herds now comprise in excess of 150 cows. Looking ahead, farmers must confront the challenge of managing businesses with this scale while, at the same time, having a decent quality of life.”

“Making this happen will entail the more widespread use of robotics and the myriad new technologies that will allow farmers spend less time in their milking parlours on a daily basis.”

Mayne explained that information is key, when it comes to running any business.

“But many farmers already find themselves in an information overload scenario. The trick is identifying those facts and figures that have a direct bearing on the running of their businesses.”

He added: “Securing more milk from forage is a key determinant of future profitability within the dairy sector.

“At AFBI we believe it should be possible to secure up to 5,000L of milk from grazed grass and silage. Our research is very focused on finding out how this can be achieved at farm level.

“This work has already shown that it is possible to grow up to 12t of grass dry matter per hectare in Northern Ireland. But to achieve this level of output requires farmers to make soil fertility a key priority.”

Mayne pointed out that this process begins with a commitment to regular soil testing.

“Only 10% of our fields are soil tested on a regular basis,” he said.

“But from the results that are available, we already know that much of Northern Ireland’s land area has a pH well below that required for optimal grass growth.

“Under these circumstances an application of lime will deliver a 7:1 return, in relation to the investment made.”

Turning to animal health matters, the AFBI chief executive confirmed that his organisation is at the very heart of the ongoing campaign to eradicate Bovine TB from Northern Ireland.

“Part of this work entails the development and assessment of new testing procedures, which will be more accurate and specific than those currently available.

“Securing the highest possible animal health standards is a key driver of farm profitability.”

AFBI’s Dr Conrad Ferris also spoke at the Dairy Innovation Day. He stressed the need for farmers to maximise silage quality, irrespective of the production systems they are following.

“Forage quality is a key driver of dairy profitability,” he said.”

Ferris confirmed that simple, flat-rate concentrate feeding systems can be effective.

“This is in cases where up to 14 kilos of concentrate are fed on a daily basis. But cows must be grouped accordingly.

“Most milk producers in Northern Ireland now operate on a feed-to-yield basis. Recent AFBI trial work has indicated that butterfat levels can be depressed when high levels of concentrate are fed, using this type of system.

“In order to find out if this is a general issue, and not one specific to the research farm at Hillsborough, we are initiating a trial which will involve the monitoring of 30 commercial dairy farms across Northern Ireland over the coming months.

“Participating farms should have 40 cows calving between September of this year and next February.

“It is our intention to have the results of the trial published in the spring of 2020. The work will be funded by the Department of Agriculture, Environmental and Rural Affairs, in tandem with Agrisearch.”