Farm incomes in NI have increased across all livestock sectors, but have fallen on arable farms, according to the latest figures from DAERA.

Farm business income, which is defined as the financial return available to unpaid labour, is forecast to average £33,039 across all types of farms in 2020-2021, up 27% on the year previous.

Incomes on NI dairy farms are forecast to average £63,846, which is up 23% year on year. As Figure 1 shows, dairy incomes can be volatile, with several pronounced peaks and troughs since the start of the last decade.

However, markets have stabilised in recent years and there has been no boom-bust cycle since the downturn of 2015 and 2016. Back then, average monthly milk prices hit a low of almost 17p/l.

The 2015-2016 financial year is also a rare example of when average incomes in the dairy sector fell below cattle and sheep. Figure 1 highlights that incomes on cattle and sheep farms tend to be consistently low.

Contrary to popular belief, average incomes on LFA cattle and sheep farms are almost always higher than their lowland counterparts

While the biggest jump in farm incomes in 2020-2021 is expected to be seen in the lowland cattle and sheep sector (up 37%), they remain the lowest across all farm types at £16,227 on average. Incomes on cattle and sheep farms in less favoured areas (LFA) are forecast to increase by 33% to an average of £20,307.

Contrary to popular belief, average incomes on LFA cattle and sheep farms are almost always higher than their lowland counterparts.

Falling incomes

Arable farming is the only sector forecast to see a drop in average incomes for the 2020-2021 year. The 5% reduction takes average income from cereals to £28,969.

Arable incomes are volatile, but tend to be higher than cattle and sheep, but less than dairying.

In the pig sector, a 21% rise is projected for 2020-2021, taking average incomes to £72,324.


The outlined figures on incomes are from the annual farm business survey which is conducted by the department. It only covers farms which are deemed to have over 0.5 standard labour requirement (SLR), so small farms with low levels of income are excluded from the calculations.

A full SLR equates to 1,900 hours work per year, or around 37 hours per week. The department categorise 9,865 farm businesses as over 0.5 SLR, which equates to 40% of all farms in NI.

Total farm incomes up 34% in NI

Total income across all types and sizes of farms in NI rose by 34% during the 2020 calendar year to stand at £456m.

Last year’s total income from farming (TIFF) value is up from £342m in 2019 and is the second-highest on record.

Total direct support payments, which is made up of the basic payment, greening and young farmers’ top-up, came to £297m, up 4% on 2019 levels.

It means that last year NI farmers made money from the business of farming, before direct payments are factored in. Total direct payments accounted for 65% of TIFF in 2020, which is the lowest it has been since 1995.

However, as Figure 2 shows, direct payments remain a critical component of farm incomes in NI.

In three of the last 10 years, TIFF was less than total direct support, so payments were used to cover losses from farming. Over the past decade, direct payments have on average equated to 91% of TIFF in NI.


The lower dependency on direct support last year ultimately comes down to higher producer prices, with prime beef up 6.1%, lamb up 15% and milk up 0.7%.

Pig and egg prices rose by 8% and 6% respectively, but average poultry prices fell by 5%.


Feedstuffs make up 54% of gross input costs on local farms and the average price paid for bought-in feed rose by 2% last year.

Machinery expenses fell by 5% to £145m, mainly because of a 12% drop in the cost of fuel and oils

However, there was a 1% drop in the total volume of feed purchased, so total costs increased by just 0.1% to £837m.

Expenditure on fertiliser and lime fell by 3% last year to £83m. While fertiliser volumes were up 17%, prices were down 19%. There was also a 27% rise in total lime purchases.

Machinery expenses fell by 5% to £145m, mainly because of a 12% drop in the cost of fuel and oils.

Turnover hits record high

Total sales from NI farms rose by 4% last year to hit a record high of £2.23bn. Dairying remains in the largest sector in NI agriculture in terms of turnover, with sales growing by 2% to total £667m during 2020.

Output from the beef sector was up 2% and sat at £438m. There was a 27% rise in sales from NI sheep farms, to total £84m.

The intensive livestock sectors are major contributors to total turnover, and in 2020 accounted for 29%, compared to 23.5% in 2011. Poultry output was at £229m in 2020, down 3% year on year, and the pig sector had sales of £217m, up 20% on 2019 levels. The egg sector increased by 11% to £128m.

Turnover from field crops stood at £62m, with the horticulture sector at £95m, of which £46m came from mushrooms.