Dairy Council Insight: June 2024

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Welcome to the inaugural ‘Dairy Council Insight’. Over the coming the months I will take the opportunity to reflect on the developments taking place within Northern Ireland’s dairy industry at both farmer and processor levels.

Sometimes, it’s easy to take for granted the scope of the sector and the scale of its social and economic impact, not just on rural areas but on Northern Ireland as a whole.

But the fundamental facts are that the figures involved are significant and they continue to grow.

Currently, there are approximately 317,000 dairy cows in Northern Ireland on around 3,200 farms, producing more than 2.5 billion litres of milk per annum.

Ian Stevenson, Chief Executive of the Dairy Council for Northern IrelandIan Stevenson, Chief Executive of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland
Ian Stevenson, Chief Executive of the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland

This level of farm-based output is generating the widest possible range of dairy products, the vast bulk of which is exported to other regions of the UK and over 80 countries around the world.

We have a unique dairy heritage, one that is – quite rightly - universally recognised.

And the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland has played a key role in helping to build that recognition, perhaps offering a perfect example of monies invested by farmers and processors themselves, being put to the best possible use.

While the summer of 2024 is now with us, the spring months were marked by changeable weather, in many ways, they were a microcosm of how the month of March alone might normally be contextualised: in like a lion, out like a lamb.

Meanwhile, the dairy industry - like so many of the sectors that make up farming and food in Northern Ireland - is too undergoing a period of change.

Indeed, change so significant that the buzzword of the moment, transformation, is applied to it.

At the recent Balmoral Show, transformation was a word frequently used in discussions regarding the next five-to-ten-year period for our agriculture and food systems as we move towards the first big milestone year of 2030 on the pathway to net zero.

Transformation is fine provided it is an evolution and managed process, that the agrifood industry plays a key part in leading and in which everyone has the opportunity to participate and be brought on the journey.

Transformation will happen in many areas. For instance, the new agricultural policy and development programme will transform how the dairy sector is supported with aid transitioning from the current Basic Payment Scheme to the full Farm Sustainability Payment (FSP) in 2026.

A number of conditionalities are planned for the FSP, such as compliance with the new Farm Sustainability Standards, participation in the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme, development of a Nutrient Management Plan, provision of specified genetic profiles (or DNA tagging) and on-farm performance data of bovine animals and participation in the Carbon Foot Printing Programme.

New schemes such as Farming with Nature must be designed in a way in which dairy farmers can meaningfully participate.

The Climate Change Act (NI) 2022 will be transformative and with the first climate action plan for Northern Ireland due to be consulted upon soon, it is imperative that the necessary support, advice and regulatory environment enables the sustainable development of our sector.

In the first sectoral plan for agriculture, we expect to see a strong emphasis in maximising known technology to make sure that livestock systems are as productive and carbon efficient as they can be.

We are already seeing a transformation in how industry is focussing on building capability right along the value chain from feed and farming through processing and distribution: productivity and adding value will be key to sustainable prosperity for farmers going forward.

So where does the Dairy Council for Northern Ireland fit in, where this process of transformation is concerned?

We have been working in the co-design and leadership space to support the dairy sector in advancing its sustainability improvement journey.

In addition, we are collaborating with industry and government on the delivery and roll out of the Soil Nutrient Health Scheme, the carbon foot printing and genetics programmes.

We are also working to establish and leverage the research needs of the dairy sector through such initiatives as the Defra Dairy Demonstrator and recently launched Climate Co Centre.

Significantly, we are communicating the dairy sector’s progress and its commitment to environmental stewardship and sustainable food production through our work in Northern Ireland. While our association with the European Milk Forum and International Dairy Federation is also critically important in this regard.

We are also driving awareness and consumption of milk and dairy products; we are recognised and credible providers of factual information about the role of milk and dairy foods in delivering nutritious healthy and sustainable diets for people of all ages.

Making all of this happen is the development of a positive image for dairy products and dairy farming in Northern Ireland with consumers.

Working together and collaborating in productive ways, we can grasp ownership of the buzzword of the moment and lead the transformation of our industry ensuring its continued success.

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