Dairy-4-Future - at the very heart of sustainable milk production practises

Article by Richard Halleron, British Dairying

A group of 10 dairy farmers from Northern Ireland are taking part in an Interreg supported Dairy4Future project. The initiative has been established to help milk producers in five regions along Europe’s Atlantic seaboard to learn from each other with the aim of making their businesses more sustainable. Dairy farming is a major economic activity in the EU’s Atlantic Area. The region comprises approximately 20 % of milk production in Europe-28. The area is also home to 80 000 dairy farms; 100 000 dairy farmers and employees plus the 70 000 workers employed in the region’s milk processing sector.

The active participation of the producer-group from Northern Ireland is being coordinated by Martin Mulholland, senior dairying technologist at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). He operates from the college’s Greenmount campus in Co Antrim. The Dairy4Future project was launched in 2018 and will continue through to 2022. The 4-year, £3.8m project has received 75% funding support from the EU. Economic, environmental and social sustainability of dairy farming will be addressed by the project. A consortium of eleven partners from eight countries including Northern Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal are involved. In addition, the project has been supported by 21 associate partners including Lakeland Dairies and the UFU in N Ireland.

From Scotland to the Azores, the Dairy-4-Future project aims to increase the competitiveness, sustainability and resilience of dairy farms through the development of
innovative and efficient dairy systems and increased cooperation between research and development stakeholder groups. At the heart of the project are a group of 100 pilot farmers and 10 experimental farms drawn from all the regions involved. Detailed data on economic, environment and social sustainability aspects of dairy farming have been collected and are currently being analysed.

The analysis will assess how the differing management practices across the diverse systems of dairy farming in the Atlantic area can contribute to increasing milk price resilience, reducing ammonia and greenhouse gas emissions and encourage generational renewal on dairy farms in the region. Martin commented: “The 10 farmer-participants from Northern Ireland were selected, following the completion of a CAFRE-cordinated application process.
He added: “Priorities for the group of farmers in question include the identification of ways to improve the sustainability of milk production. “Specifically, this will include aspects of environmental sustainability, including the management of greenhouse gases and ammonia emissions. “We will also be looking at the role of soil phosphate balances and the associated impact on water quality. “Another priority for the project is to identify ways by which antibiotic usage levels within the dairy sector can be reduced through the use of benchmarking techniques.” But Martin is also keen to stress the role of the project in helping to improve the social infrastructure of dairy farming in Northern Ireland. “Succession planning is a key issue in this context,” he said. “All of the farms involved are family-run businesses. Succession is as relevant to milk producers in Brittany or Spain as it is to farmers here in Northern Ireland.” Visiting their farming colleagues in the other regions involved in Dairy4Future will be a key driver for the participating group from Northern Ireland. And this process is already underway.

June of this year saw the 10 farmers undertake a 2-day exchange visit to Brittany. Martin Mulholland again: “The trip included visits to Brittany dairy farms, dinner with local farmers and advisers and a visit to the Derval Experimental farm north of Nantes. “Some of the management practices that particularly impressed the farmers on the exchange visit were the low concentrate use per cow and per litre relative to milk yields. The farmers in question are able too produce up to 8,500L of milk form 1.56t of concentrates. “Grassland management standards on the farms visited was also extremely high; as was the commitment to produce high quality conserved forage quality.

The low nitrogen fertilizer use on the Brittany farms is also worthy of comment as was the the family lifestyle focus of the farmers themselves.” Figures produced by CAFRE, comparing the relative performance of dairy farms in Brittany that hosted the visiting group with the current benchmarking performance levels achieved on the top 10% of benchmarked farms in Northern Ireland are worthy of note. For example, herd size in Brittany ranges from 57 to 100 cows, whereas the Northern Ireland benchmarked figure is 190 head. Average milk yields in Brittany range from 8,470 L to 9,227L. The equivalent benchmarked figure for Northern Ireland is 8538L.

One of the most significant differences in the production practises followed in the two regions is the relatively high significance of forage maize in Brittany. Table 1 gives a full breakdown of the comparative and production differences between the two regions. Martin Mulholland commented: The farmers from Northern Ireland participating in the exchange visit were surprised by the low land prices in Brittany. These range between €5,000 and €10,000 per hectare. “The extent of mixed dairying and cereal cropping on the dairy farms we visited was also significant, as was the relatively low milk output productivity per labour unit on the Brittany dairy farms. “This works out at 309,078L per labour unit, compared to 905,908 on the top 10% farms in Northern Ireland. The lack of drive by Brittany farmers to expand their business was also evident. “However, there was also a strong recognition on the farms we visited of the perceived potential for watercourse pollution from dirty water run-off from farmyards.

Other points gleaned by the visiting farmers to Brittany included the French recognition of the need to put in place sustainable succession plans, the French dairy industry’s commitment to reducing antibiotic residue levels in milk and the varying producer price structures put in place by milk processers in Brittany.The CAFRE representative believes that the dairy4future programme can deliver real benefits for milk producers in Northern Ireland. “There will be a series of publications produced throughout the lifetime of the project, as well as a concluding report,” he said. “All of this work will constitute a resource which practising farmers and students can learn from.”

Part of the work undertaken by the co-ordinating teams in the five regions will be that of assessing conserved forage quality across the 100 pilot farms. Martin Mulholland has been selected as the person responsible for over-seeing this particular aspect of the project. “Forage samples will be taken on all the respective farms over the coming months,” Martin confirmed. “They will be taken by nominated advisors, so as to ensure a high degree of consistency when it comes to the forage sampling process. “All the forages will be analysed by staff in the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute laboratory at Hillsborough in Co Down.”

Martin Mulholland concluded: “The visit of the dairy farmers from Northern Ireland to Brittany was very successful. There was a good balance between technical and social aspects. “The Dairy4Future programme can help to increase the competitiveness, sustainability and resilience of dairy farms in Northern Ireland. “It will allow those involved to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the dairy sectors in the five participating regions. “In turn, this will encourage those involved to really assess how they can improve efficiency, using the resources available to them on their own farms. In so doing, they will be acting as role models for other dairy farmers seeking to secure a viable future for themselves and their families.”


Dairy-4-Future Exchange Visit – ECOANTIBIO in France

One of the French innovations experienced during the exchange visit was ‘ECOANTIBIO’, the French National Plan for the reduction of antimicrobial resistance from the use of veterinary medicines. This was of particular interest to the N. Ireland dairy farmers as they have been benchmarking antimicrobial use as part of the project through Stephen Gilkinson in Greenmount Campus, CAFRE.

Click on the link below to read the article:

French initiative to reduce antibiotic use

Dairy-4-Future Project – Exchange visit to Brittany

As a key part of the project, 10 local dairy farmers participating in the project recently had the opportunity to undertake a 2-day exchange visit to Brittany in France. The exchange visit included visits to Brittany dairy farms, dinner with local farmers and advisers and a visit to the Derval Experimental farm north of Nantes.


Click on the link below to read the full article:

Exchange visit to Brittany

French aim for a better work to life balance

Irish Farmers Journal news about Dairy4Future project. Co Antrim dairy farmer Mark Blelock is among a group of 100 farmers taking part in a european project.

Click on the image below to read the article:

Case Study: SRUC Dairy Herds - The Effect of Reducing Milking Frequency in Response to Covid-19

Are there benefits to be had from moving from a 3x milking system to 2x?

Perhaps the main reason to change is to reduce milk output, based on your milk buyers requirements with the current impact of COVID-19 on dairy markets. However, reducing milking frequency may not necessarily significantly reduce milk output as discovered at SRUC’s three dairy units.

  • The milking interval will have an impact on the response to 2x milking. Keeping to a 12 hour interval could minimise the drop in production.
  • Be aware that cell counts and mastitis count increase, but with attention to detail in the parlour and keeping cows clean, milk hygiene quality can be maintained.
  • There are benefits for staff, reduced labour and other costs associated with a 3rd milking.

Read more:


Dairy farmers sought for international project

TEN SCOTTISH dairy farmers are being given the opportunity to become involved in a project looking at how new technologies can improve and secure the long-term future of dairying.

One of the project partners is Scotland’s Rural College, and the project will run for four years, from 2018 until the end of 2021.

An initial budget of €2,000 per farm has been allocated for each pilot farmer to travel over the lifetime of the project, in order for them to visit other European farms within a network of 100 pilot farms.

Known as Dairy-4-Future, the EU Interreg-funded project involves consortium of 11 partners from the Atlantic region of western Europe.

Project partners are from five countries, including the UK , Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal, and organisations involved include SRUC, CAFRE, AHDB, IDELE and Teagasc.

Project partners are supported by 21 associate partners across the five countries.

Dairy production is an important economic activity in the Atlantic Area, and dairy expansion is ongoing in that area. As dairying faces the challenges of market volatility and climatic hazards, there is a need for more efficient use of natural resources to improve competitiveness and the use of new and innovative farming techniques.

From Scotland to the Azores, the Dairy-4-Future project aims to increase the competitiveness, sustainability and resilience of dairy farms, through the development of innovative and efficient dairy systems and increased co-operation between research and development stakeholder groups.

Pilot farms are an integral aspect of this project, along with the analysis of sustainability on the farms across the five countries involved.

Some criteria must be met in order to be involved in the project. Farms must be innovative and it is essential these pilot farms are farms typical of the region, i.e. above-average dairy farms in terms of technical and economic performance, while at the same time being relevant to other farms in the region in terms of farm size and cow numbers.

The average number of cows per farm ranges between 31 in the Azores to 182 in Scotland, with a mean of 82 cows per farm in the Atlantic Area.

Key selection criteria for the pilot farms are:
•    Good economic performance
•    Good technical and environmental performances (N balance, Carbon Footprint)
•    Motivated individuals, prepared to travel to visit pilot farms in other regions
•    Prepared to host farm visits both locally and from other European regions
•    Innovative dairy farms, incorporating novel dairy systems or working in close collaboration with research and development


"This is a win-win strategy for livestock farmers, the dairy industry, consumers and citizens"

What are the challenges for Dairy production in the Atlantic Area?

André Le Gall: The European Atlantic Area is very favourable to dairy production thanks to good pedoclimatic conditions for fodder production, well educated farmers and efficient dairy processing and manufacturing businesses. The Atlantic Area is well positioned to meet growing global demand for of dairy products. Nevertheless, the dairy sector faces several challenges:

  • The economic resilience of milk producing family farms in a context of market globalisation.
  • Environmental impact, including the carbon footprint of milk production, through more efficient resource use on farms.
  • Good husbandry practices that protect animal welfare
  • Working conditions on dairy farms to encourage young people to see dairy farming as a viable and attractive career.

Why do we need another project on Dairy farm sustainability?

André Le Gall: Finding more appropriate upgraded solutions to economic, environmental and social challenges are pivotal to maintaining viable family farms in constantly evolving contexts; global markets, policy on climate change and social mores.

What is the main novelty of Dairy4Future?

André Le Gall: The Dairy4Future project aims to design and implement innovative systems of dairy production with improved economic, environmental and social performances through multi-actor transnational approach with farmers, advisors and researchers working together to elucidate the most desirable outcomes. Targets include lowering on-farm production costs by 10% and carbon footprint of farm-gate milk by 20%.

Can you tell us a little more about the Consortium: how did you establish it? What was the relationship between partners before D4F?

André Le Gall: The Atlantic Area encompasses 20% of the dairy production in Europe. Dairy4Future brings together partners from research, innovation, extension, dairy farmer and industry representatives many of whom have already been involved in earlier European projects such as Green Dairy (2003-2006) Dairyman (2009-2013) Autograssmilk (2013-2015) Eurodairy (2015-2018) and others. This ensured optimal cooperation from the outset between partners that shared a well-informed and balanced vision for the dairy sector in the Atlantic Area. Partners bring complementary competencies ranging from dairy value chain socio-economics, farming techniques and systems, environmental assessment and carbon footprint mitigation.

Can you briefly describe the approach to reach the proposed objectives?

André Le Gall: We first carried out a SWOT analysis of the dairy sector in the different regions of the Atlantic area, covering both on-farm production and the downstream processing sector.  We are in the process of identifying  the multifaceted services provided by dairy farming. The development of more resilient and efficient dairy farming systems is based on a network of 100 high-tech, economically and environmentally efficient dairy farms and 10 experimental farms, which are involved in testing more efficient systems of milk production. One of the functions of this network is to facilitate exchange of innovations between partners and in the wider communities throughout the Atlantic Area. This is supported by active communication on social networks and by a conference in summer 2020 for stakeholders from across the Atlantic Area.

How can we differentiate Dairy products and be more competitive in the future?

André Le Gall: We will promote innovative dairy systems that are based on local resources such as the rich rain-fed grasslands of the Atlantic Area that underpin low cost production of milk with a low environmental footprint. These systems render several services to society (food, ecosystems and culture) and allow for product differentiation  of milk products and higher value along dairy food supply chains.

How are farmers involved in the project?

André Le Gall: There are 100 pilot farmers that are actively involved in addressing the core  issues in this project. Exchanges between regions are facilitates by exchange visits of pilot farmers and other stakeholders from one region to another. The pilot livestock farmers will also be involved in the 2020 Summer Conference, so that they can champion the innovative practices implemented on their farms. Finally, these 100 pilot farms open up their farms for other farmers and stakeholders can come and visit and see and learn and discus about the innovations in practice.

What is the role of the network of 10 experimental farms?

André Le Gall: The role of experimental farms is to develop, test and demonstrate prototype systems that make efficient  use of resources and with a low environmental footprint; there are ambitious targets for lowering greenhouse gas emissions, for example. We also aim for standardisation of methods and metrics, to facilitate interpretation and more rapidly elucidate the systems of tomorrow.

Where can we found more information about the project and how can be stay in contact?

André Le Gall: Information on the project is available on the Dairy4Future project website. Project news and results will be published as they become available on social networks (Facebook in PT, ES, FR, UK and IRL, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube). Conferences organised in each region or country will also disseminate results. Finally, information is available from the contact point of each country.

What will we learn from D4F?

André Le Gall: The main innovations will be blueprint systems of milk production optimised for best economic and environmental outcomes for farmers and society in general. There will be roadmaps for a sustainable future for dairy farmers and for the dairy processing sector including  issues such as encouraging the next generation of dairy farmers and production differentiation, for examples. The aim is to promote strategies for long-term impact.

How can farmers interact with pilot farmers, researchers and other members of the Consortium?

André Le Gall: Dairy farmers and other stakeholders will be able to interact with pilot farmers and research teams at Open Days that will be held on pilot farms and experimental farms throughout the project.

This is a very promising project. Will it change Dairy farming in Europe?

André Le Gall: The objective of this project is to promote worthy, productive and competitive dairy systems, based on local resources and with low environmental impact, and able to add value on dairy products. This is a win-win strategy for livestock farmers, the dairy industry, consumers and citizens. The target of this project is also to stimulate exchanges between us, because we believe in cooperation rather than competition.


  André Le Gall, project coordinator (andre.legall@idele.fr)