Environmental legislation to be biggest limiting factor for NI dairying in 2030

One of Northern Ireland’s leading dairy researchers has warned he expects environmental legislation to be one of the biggest limiting factors to the industry locally by 2030.

Speaking as part of the Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) webinar ‘The Future of Dairy Production to 2030’, Dr. Conrad Ferris said environmental factors, such as ammonia emissions, had already begun to impact the industry’s growth.

Dr. Ferris said: “As we look to the future for our dairy sector there are certainly lots of challenges, but as in most areas of life, challenges often bring opportunities.”

Structural changes over the last 20 years have seen the total number of herds fall by around 25 a year. Meanwhile, the average herd size has increased by around two cows a year.

However, Dr. Ferris said he believed total cow numbers will remain relatively stable over the next decade.

“Production – in terms of litres – has continued to grow, currently increasing by around 55L/cow/year. And I don’t see any reason to believe that is going to slow down,” he said.

“Certainly, with genetic indexes, we can continue to improve production and improve fertility and health.

However, I do believe the biggest challenge to the overall structure of the dairy sector going forward is environmental legislation – and I believe that is what will probably have the biggest impact on the structure of the local dairy sector.

“Legislation is already impacting herd expansion on some farms,” he added, referring to delays over agricultural planning associated with tightened restrictions over ammonia emissions.

Dr. Ferris said it was likely environmental legislation would continue to tighten for the industry. However, explained that anything the sector can do to become more efficient would have benefits for both its profitability and its environmental impact.

“In terms of genetics and nutrition, I think there is a real win-win situation in that we know that anything we do to improve the overall efficiency of the whole milk production system – right from calf-rearing, getting heifers calving down at 24 months, increasing longevity, the whole picture – reduces greenhouse gases and ultimately improves profitability,” Dr. Ferris said.

“Over the last two decades, we have seen a real escalation in environmental challenges for dairy farmers. Back around 2000, water quality issues became a big issue in Northern Ireland – driven by the Nitrates Directive and water quality in regards to phosphorous. 10 years later, it was the climate change issue.

“The key thing here is that it is cumulative – just because now we are focused on ammonia doesn’t mean that issues like water quality and climate change have gone away.

In reality, we are now trying to deal with all three of these, while 20 years ago we were only focused on water quality.

Dr. Ferris explained that many gains made in terms of water quality had been lost in recent years. Soluble reactive phosphorous levels in rivers had fallen from 2005 until 2012 but have now risen back to the 2007 figure – almost wiping out 15 years’ worth of progress.

“There are all sorts of reasons for that. But in terms of [agriculture], I do believe that reducing phosphorous levels in our concentrates, which is something our feed industry has already adopted. [This is] something that, going forward, we will have to push further and we will likely have to move even lower in terms of new levels.”

As a result, research is expected to begin soon at AFBI examining the impact of lower protein diets for dairy cows. It will test what effect reducing protein in cows’ diets has on farm ammonia emissions.

Meanwhile, promising research carried out by the institute also shows the potential to replace imported feedstocks with protein sources grown in Northern Ireland.

As part of the study, researchers were able to replace imported soya with locally-grown field beans completely without major impacts on milk composition. Reducing the food miles of animal feed could help further reduce the industry’s emissions.