A new beef unit for Northern Ireland’s Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) is now a step closer.

The region’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) confirmed it has “approved an outline business case” for new beef facilities after news broke that the institute had removed its beef premises from its establishment licence.

It means the institute will no longer be able to carry out specialist research in its current beef unit.

The beef research unit at AFBI includes a suckler herd of 100 cows, as well as an annual intake of approximately 150 dairy-bred calves from the institute’s dairy herd.

The buildings are thought to be around 40 years old and will no longer be used by the institute. However, AFBI will still be able to conduct research elsewhere on its sites.

Next steps

A formal plan for the new unit is expected to be put forward in the autumn.

It will likely include tools to measure and mitigate emissions, such as carbon, methane and ammonium, from livestock as environmental sustainability becomes central to DAERA’s plan for agricultural development.

Video imaging technology and multiple feed mixing stations are also understood to be on the wishlist, but with a budget still to be set for the build, plans have not yet been confirmed.

The department has said the new unit could include a collaboration with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) with the site to be used both for research and teaching.

A DAERA spokesman said: “The department recognises that significant investment is required in the beef facilities at AFBI Hillsborough and acknowledges that the current main beef facilities at AFBI Hillsborough are no longer appropriate for a licence to conduct scientific work.

“Plans for new facilities are being developed based on a novel AFBI and CAFRE delivery model fully integrating research, education and knowledge and technology transfer.

The objective is to transform science and the on-farm uptake of new innovations for the beef sector, with a focus on improving productivity, environmental sustainability, resilience and supply chain integration.

“Work is already underway within AFBI and CAFRE to share cattle and facilities as part of this integrated approach and new beef research is being commissioned by DAERA.

“An outline business case for the new beef facilities has been approved by the Department of Finance and work on the costings and detailed plans for the proposed new investment is progressing.

“In the meantime, AFBI will use its extensive instrumented grazing platform and its facilities at AFBI Loughgall, as well as some alternative cattle housing at AFBI Hillsborough, to conduct its beef research programme.”

‘Still a long way to go’

Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) Beef and Lamb Committee chairman Sam Chesney said: “We are delighted that at long last a business case has been approved for a new beef facility. However, there is still a long way to go.

This is something we have been calling for, for the last 10 years.

“It will be a big spend but these facilities will be for the next 25 years and we can’t enter a new era without top-class research, teaching and knowledge transfer facilities – and we need these up and running very quickly.”