Secretary general of the Department of Agriculture Tom Moran opened proceedings by outlining the role the agri-food sector is playing the economy. He said agriculture as a “driver of economic growth has increasingly been recognised by the Government, especially since the crash”.

Moran also pointed to population growth and how food production will have to “grow by 60% to 70% in the coming decades” and how Ireland will be central to that growth.

Moran concluded by talking about trade and multilateral trade deals. He said in 2012 the Irish food industry focused on developing markets in the Gulf, China and Japan which “had success” and now the emphasis will shift to market access in “Russia, Africa and the US”.

CEO of the Irish Dairy Board Kevin Lane said while all signs are positive for expansion in the dairy herd, there are a number of hurdles for the sector to deal with.

“There are challenges,” Lane said. “Investment in the sector will remain difficult,” he said.

He went on to say that the Irish dairy sector must continue to adapt and diversify its offering. “It’s not just what we want but what the market wants too,” he said.

Lane also pointed to price volatility. “Milk prices of 38-39c have not been the norm in the past 10 years. We need to pick a sensible number in what we budget for and manage volatility.”

He concluded by saying that the “massive passion” among dairy farmers will help the growth of the sector post 2015.

Keeping the majority of his talk on a topical note, managing director of the Kepak John Horgan spoke at length about the bull beef issue and the need for beef farmers to keep their animals “in specification”.

“Animals in the 300kg-380kg weight range, under 30 months of age with an acceptable fat score and condition are what we call in specification,” Horgan said. “Unfortunately, almost 50% of cattle fall outside these specifications.” Horgan said it is difficult to sell to retail clients when animals are out of spec.

Talking at length about the innovations needed in the sector, Horgan said the role of sexed semen technology can be “crucial” for the sector. However, he said the technology is now “on the cusp of greatness or procrastination” and urged the sector to press ahead with advancements.

Joe Hyland of Irish Country Meats (ICM) challenged the Department of Agriculture to “deliver for the sheep sector”.

“We have been the bridesmaids in the latest CAP reform, we need a coherency in the implantation of the proposals that will deliver for the sheep farmers. In Food Harvest proposals, beef was tasked with growing by 40%, dairying 50% and the sheep man, all he had to was 20%, we’re now at 35%,” he said.

Hyland also called the Department to focus further on developing more Muslim markets. “1.6bn people or 23% of world’s population are Muslims, we need to focus our market access strategy in line with this opportunity,” he said.

Chairman of Truly Irish Jim McGrath said that while world demand for Irish pigmeat is positive there are number of factors, such increasing inputs, that could perhaps stall growth.

“Feed represents 70% of pig production costs, this is 10% higher than mainland Europe,” McGrath said.

McGrath also that the Food Harvest targets are challenging but are there to be met.

The first session was concluded with CEO of Glanbia Ingredients Jim Bergin. Bergin opened his talk by drawing on a sporting analogy to represent the impending removal of milk quotas.

“We’re at the 60th minute of a game and we are about to bring our substitutes to freshen up the game,” Bergin said.

Bergin spoke at length about the developments and upgrades Glanbia is carrying out.

“Belview is coming,” he said. “We have a lot of work done there and the plant is progressing well,” said.

He said the Belview development and the upgrading of its other sites including Ballyragget are “crucial” to being prepared for the removal of quotas and competing even more on the world’s stage.

"We are competing for the rich niches in the world market,” he said before saying that the country must stay ahead of the market.

Further reports to follow on