Projections of grass growth in NI out to 2040 suggest by then, we will be growing more grass at the shoulders of the season, but overall, monthly growth will be significantly more volatile than it is now.

Highlighting the issue at an AgriSearch conference on Tuesday, Professor Elizabeth Magowan from AFBI said this volatility “will become the new normal” so it is vital that research helps to identify resilient systems to be put in place on farms.

Despite a changing climate, she said NI is likely to remain a marginal region for growing arable crops, so grass-based livestock systems will dominate going forward.

However, ruminant livestock is associated with higher emissions of greenhouse gases (particularly methane), which means that finding ways to decarbonise the sector is currently a major focus for AFBI.

The starting point on a path towards lower emissions on farms is to establish a baseline by undertaking a carbon audit. Magowan told the AgriSearch event she was “really proud” that NI is currently rolling out a carbon benchmarking programme and that it is to the envy of other UK regions.

But she pointed out that carbon is not the only environmental issue in NI and excess nitrogen (in the form of ammonia) and excess phosphorus were “maybe an even bigger challenge”.

“I would like us to focus on being the best in the world on sustainable food and feed those 10m people the most sustainable product we can,” she added.

It was put to Magowan by Tyrone dairy farmer Alan Irwin that researchers are too fixated on grass and are ignoring the fact more NI producers are opting for fully contained dairy systems. In response she pointed to the ongoing issues with excess ammonia and phosphorus, both of which are exacerbated when cattle are kept inside and warned that more housing will lead to a greater disconnect between farmers and the general public.

She also suggested there will be more alternatives coming forward for land use in NI, especially in growing crops for the likes of biomass or anaerobic digestion, to be used in the energy and transport sectors.

“It is not all about cows. We do need to keep an open mind,” said Magowan.

Priority areas for new research

The aim of the AgriSearch conference on Tuesday was to identify the current research and innovation needs across the farming industry.

Summing up at the end of the conference, former AFBI CEO Dr Sinclair Mayne said the industry must focus on breeding the right animal for the system of production on farm. He welcomed the progress made in setting up Sustainable Ruminant Genetics and the plan to genotype the cattle breeding herd in NI.

“Breeding is low-cost, cumulative and easy to implement on farm,” he said.

However, he said there was a “challenge of expertise” with only one geneticist across AFBI, QUB and Ulster University.

On issues around forage and soils, Mayne suggested there is a need for improved nutrient management planning tools and better knowledge around how we measure carbon sequestered on farms.

When it comes to feeding strategies he said there is potential to offer lower crude protein feeds (which will help reduce ammonia) by focusing more on amino acids in diets.

Relevant skills

In conclusion, he challenged research organisations to come forward with multi-year research programmes and to have researchers in place with the relevant skills to work alongside farmers.

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