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.”