NORTHERN Ireland’s climate and soil types are well suited to pasture-based food production and as such the dairy sector is a key industry in the Province.
As reported by the Dairy Council, Northern Ireland has over 310,000 dairy cows producing 2,335 million litres of milk, which contributes to an industry with an annual turnover of £925 million and export sales of £323 million.
In the second of AFBI’s series of Outlook webinars, two of AFBI’s leading dairy scientists, Dr Conrad Ferris and Dr Debbie McConnell highlighted some of the key challenges and opportunities facing the dairy industry to 2030 and outlined examples of the dairy research that is underway within AFBI.
Key challenges that were highlighted for the dairy industry included reducing its environmental impact in a holistic manner, addressing antimicrobial resistance, optimising grass production, silage quality and milk solids content, as well as the expected impact of climate change on future grassland productivity in NI.
Dr Conrad Ferris highlighted the opportunity, and indeed the need, for NI to improve milk fat and milk protein content. He noted that a revised milk pricing system would encourage this, and that it was possible to achieve improvements through a combination of nutrition and especially breeding for high milk protein and fat content.
When discussing the environmental challenges facing the dairy industry, Conrad highlighted a number of research projects underway in AFBI to address issues with nitrates, phosphates, greenhouse gases and ammonia. However, he highlighted that these challenges need to be considered in a holistic manner to address potential trade-offs and reduce the risk of ‘pollution swapping’, and ultimately decision support tools need to consider all of the factors to enable the farming industry to address them collectively.
The recent Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted how fragile supply chains can be and Conrad highlighted recent results from AFBI investigating the use of home-grown protein sources to reduce reliance on imported soya.
In closing, Conrad highlighted that the future management of the dairy herd will be through precision management of individual cows, and techniques such as MIR (mid infrared reflectance spectroscopy) milk analysis has a key role to play in achieving precision management.
Dr Debbie McConnell focused on grassland management and highlighted the impact which future climate change predictions could have on NI’s grass production potential.
Debbie highlighted that grass production has the potential to increase, especially during May and June and in the autumn in the coming 20-30 years but the level of variability from year to year will be significant and will pose a real challenge. To address this challenge Debbie highlighted the need for measurement and prediction tools, refined for the variation on climate variability that is expected to occur in the future and in different parts of the country.
Future sward composition can play a key role in resilience to drought and other climate challenges was also highlighted. Debbie noted that multi-species swards or the inclusion of plantain are key areas of research required to understand their role in future resilience of grass production.
The webinar was highly successful with over 160 participants online and is now available on the AFBI YouTube Channel for viewing.
The third AFBI outlook webinar in this series will be held on July 2 at 10am. This webinar will focus on ‘Safeguarding NI’s Natural Capita from Invasive Alien Species’.
Invasive alien species are defined as problematic non-native species that invade a new region. AFBI’s leading scientists in the areas of plant health and entomology, Dr Colin Fleming and Dr Archie Murchie, will highlight the key threats these pose to Northern Ireland’s plant-based sectors and some key mitigations that are in place to minimise their impact.
n Anyone wishing to participate should register through the AFBI website (www.afbini.gov.uk/events)