Farmers could be losing out on thousands of pounds simply by not effectively managing their grass, researchers say.

AFBI’s Hillsborough research facility was the centre of world dairy leaders’ focus on Friday as delegates from the World Dairy Summit toured the site.

Prof. Trevor Gilliland told the international audience: “Grassland is the biggest resource that we have in Northern Ireland and we support it where we can. It grows naturally, it’s the cheapest feed resource going into our stock and it is also – when used efficiently – one of the most environmentally-friendly.”

AFBI’s Hillsborough base includes 180ha of grassland. The organisation also works closely with more than 30 dairy, beef and sheep grassland farms spread across Northern Ireland – including dairy farmer Hugh Harbison from Aghadowey, Coleraine.

Hugh Harbison from Aghadowey, Coleraine said making better use of his grass had helped profitability

Harbison milks 160 cows in an autumn-calving system and also rears around 40 calves to beef. However, he wants to focus on his milking herd and plans to use a contractor for heifer-rearing. Cows are fed a mixture of grass silage, and wholecrop wheat.

He started working with researchers at AFBI in 2014 and says he has seen an increase in profitability.

Over a three-year period, he was able to drop concentrate feeding from 2,518kg/cow to 1,729kg/cow and maintain good butterfat and protein content to his milk.

A better working environment

Over the same period, the milk price had dropped from 34.8p/L to 25.8p/L but because of his lower costs he was better prepared.

Harbison moved from a two-cut silage system to harvesting better quality silage and also taking weekly measurements to manage the grass.

Harbison said: “The proof is in the pudding; managing your grass better really does give you a more profitable business. Ultimately we want to have a profitable business that will allow us to have a good working environment and lifestyle.”

‘We’ve still a long way to go’

Debbie McConnell, dairy grassland researcher said: “Around 93% of our land type is covered by grass so it gives us a real competitive advantage and a USP [unique selling point] for Northern Irish produce.

“When we look at some of the financial figures on farms, we know that farmers who make better use of grass and better use of forage end up having a higher net profit per cow than those who don’t.

For farmers in the top 25% of farms ranked for forage are about £241 (€272) per cow better off. So we are seeing a very clear financial benefit from making more from grass.

“And there are really good opportunities to make more from grass here – over the last 10 years we have seen a decline in milk yield from forage.

“It fell from around 3,200L per cow back in 2000 hitting a low of 1,700L per cow in 2015. We did see a lift again with the bad milk prices of a year ago and it has grown again to about 2,400L – but we reckon we could be targeting 3,500L-4,000L per cow on farms easily – so we’ve still a long way to go.”