Sustainability in practice

Carrigans dairy farmer Drew McConnell has hosted more than 30 attendees on an EU Sustainable Dairy Farm Visit to showcase the environmental benefits he has achieved by reducing the protein given to his milking herd.
Val and Drew McConnellVal and Drew McConnell
Val and Drew McConnell

The Dairy Council NI farm visit was part of an EU Sustainable Dairy programme in partnership with the European Milk Forum with funding from the European Union but because of ongoing restrictions the event took place online.

During the visit Drew spoke about his involvement on a research project with the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) which explored how to improve on farm efficiencies by altering the diet being fed to the cows. He also shared his experience of tailoring his herd management to suit the location of his farm, local climate, grassland performance and the energy needs of each individual cow. 

Drew McConnell said: “As a business we focus on breeding high producing animals that are efficient and will produce high quality milk for a long number of years.

“By targeting efficient animals with a long lifespan, not only are we left with a better financial margin but our overall carbon footprint is also lower due to the lower number of both milking cows and youngstock required to maintain overall farm production.

“Being involved in research trials to help us improve our youngstock rearing to ensure long lifespan animals has been key to achieving this.”

Working in partnership with Thompson’s Feeds and AFBI the farm also investigated the impact of feeding a lower protein diet to dairy cows as part of a two year research trial.

“This lower protein ration, limited milk production in the first 40 days after calving, reducing the overall energy demand being placed on the cow at this important time,” explained Drew.

Although milk volume was reduced in those early days, the farm recorded no negative impact on overall milk performance and improvements in animal health and fertility were also seen.

“Importantly, lowering protein in the diet has also helped us improve our environmental footprint by lowering enteric emissions,” commented Drew. “With protein being the most expensive part of the diet, overall lower feed costs is also a welcome bonus.”

Chief Executive at Dairy Council NI Dr Mike Johnston MBE said: “The Northern Ireland dairy sector is incredibly focussed on tackling its carbon footprint. In the last three decades the volume of milk produced locally has more than doubled, but the efficiency savings being made on farms are so significant our emissions intensity has reduced by a third. 

“This environmental improvement is due in no small part to the hard work and dedication of the farmers and the researchers at AFBI and CAFRE who take an evidence based approach to dairy farming and helping transfer that knowledge so it can be applied on farms across Northern Ireland.” 

Drew also spoke about other sustainability initiatives he has introduced on the farm such as using a dribble bar for more accurate slurry application, installing energy efficient lighting, increasing the volume of hedges to improve biodiversity and installing a water borehole.

Richard Moore from Thompsons’ Feeds gave more detail on the importance of animal nutrition to on-farm sustainability and Niall McCarron of Lakeland Dairies shared expertise from a dairy processor’s perspective including increasing demand from customers for sustainable produce. 

In closing, Drew said that he knows he won’t be working on the farm forever and wants to ensure he hands it on to the next generation on as sustainable a footing as possible.