New research challenges confront agriculture in Northern Ireland

Alistair Carson, AFBI; Bill Yarr, former Chairman, AgriSearch; John Martin, Trustee, AgriSearch and Edward Adamson, Vice Chair, Sheep Advisory Committee, AgriSearch, at a function in Belfast to mark the 20th Anniversary of AgriSearch. Photograph: Columba O'Hare
Alistair Carson, AFBI; Bill Yarr, former Chairman, AgriSearch; John Martin, Trustee, AgriSearch and Edward Adamson, Vice Chair, Sheep Advisory Committee, AgriSearch, at a function in Belfast to mark the 20th Anniversary of AgriSearch. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

According to AgriSearch chairman Michael Bell, paying dairy farmers on the solids-only content of their milk is one option that must be looked at as the industry works out how best it can respond to the challenge of volatility.

“Fundamentally, it’s about delivering for consumers in ways that make best economic sense for farmers,” he added.

Four AgriSearch Chair's at a function in Belfast to mark AgriSearch's 20th Anniversary. From left: David Dobbin, Bill Yarr, James Campbell and Michael Bell. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

Four AgriSearch Chair's at a function in Belfast to mark AgriSearch's 20th Anniversary. From left: David Dobbin, Bill Yarr, James Campbell and Michael Bell. Photograph: Columba O'Hare

“Where beef is concerned, the challenge is one of delivering optimal taste on a consistent basis. Both of these issues will require a research-led response.”

Mr Bell was speaking at the launch of a book, entitled ‘Making a Difference for Generations’, which has been written to highlight the successes achieved by AgriSearch over the past 20 years.

The publication also addresses the research challenges that lie ahead for Northern Ireland’s ruminant sectors.

“Our dairy, beef and sheep farmers must make better use of grass,” explained the AgriSearch chairman.

“This, again, will require a research response, which can be generated by the likes of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute here in Northern Ireland in tandem with similar organisations in other parts of the UK and the Republic of Ireland.”

He continued: “Brexit is another issue that will require a research response on behalf of our ruminant sectors.”

Bell confirmed that farmer-funding alone has helped deliver research worth over £170m to Northern Ireland’s ruminant livestock sectors from less than £8 million of levy payments.

“In its first 20 years AgriSearch has committed £7.7m of farmer levy funds towards 145 projects, with a total cost of £35 million. Based on a conservative 5 to 10% uptake rate, the value of this research to the Northern Ireland ruminant livestock sector is estimated to be at least £170 million. By any standards this is excellent value for money,” he said.

“But AgriSearch’s 20th anniversary is less about looking back than about looking to the future and deciding how AgriSearch can best serve the needs of ruminant livestock farmers. We recognise that these are rapidly changing times for the agri-food sector. Many new challenges and opportunities for the entire food supply chain will emerge.”

Mr Bell added: “AgriSearch has produced a publication to mark its anniversary, asking experts in the agri-food sector to set out what twenty years of co-funded research has achieved and how our levy payers can rise to the challenge of rapidly changing times.

“The Making a Difference for Generations book covers a wide variety of topics from maximising output from forage to environmental sustainability, and from volatility and big data to the future of food.

“AgriSearch has commissioned this publication to inform farmers and the wider industry about the challenges and opportunities facing our industry and how modern science and innovation can address many of these challenges. We also hope it will stimulate debate and feedback on how AgriSearch can best meet the needs of its farmer levy payers over the next 20 years.”

CAFRE’s Eileen McCloskey attended the 20-year celebration event. She said that local agriculture must be able to compete internationally.

“And well-structured research will help make this happen. But it is equally important to communicate the results of this work back down the line to commercial farmers in a meaningful way,” she explained.

“Real time data capture will be critical in making a difference in farm performance. But again the real challenge is getting this information to the broadest possible grouping of farmers.”

AgriSearch general manager Jason Rankin said that increasing use will be made of social media in order to communicate relevant, take-home messages, particularly to younger farmers.

He said: “We want to engage with farmers within all sectors in a more meaningful way. And making best use of social media is one way of doing this.”