While there are many challenges ahead, there will also be huge opportunities, attendees at last week’s 62nd annual conference of the Ulster Grassland Society (UGS) were told.
Taking place online over two nights (Wednesday and Thursday), the conference heard from Arthur Fearnall, a 58-year-old dairy farmer from Chester milking 400 crossbred cows in a grass-based system. In 2018, he was appointed to the Arla Foods amba board.
During his presentation, he set out the threats and the opportunities for farming. Among the threats was veganism, which he said was real, but perhaps not as great as we all think.
“The only vegans are north of the Alps of Europe, on the east and west coast of the US, and in Australia and New Zealand. Everywhere else, they pretty much don’t exist,” said Fearnall.
He also questioned the nutritional quality of plant-based foods, and pointed out that some of them come with very high carbon footprints.
But under current carbon accounting systems, animal-based products also have a high carbon footprint, and Fearnall highlighted his concern at recent suggestions the UK government is considering introducing a carbon tax on food. “That could hit milk and dairy quite hard – it is one we are watching,” he said.
Aside from that, farmers will be under more pressure to cut both methane and ammonia emissions, and that will come at a cost, acknowledged Fearnall.
However, cutting carbon emissions per litre will require farmers to be more efficient, and ultimately more efficient farms are more profitable. Farmland will also provide the solutions for government targets around carbon.
“We (in Arla) think there will be carbon credits that farmers will be able to sell. My advice to my son is to keep the cows for 20 years as they are profitable. But if in 15 to 20 years you are making more money in carbon credits and by growing x, y and z, you are going to look at it,” said Fearnall.
He also pointed to the growing world population, and in developed countries, an ageing population that will require high quality animal-based protein in their diets.
And with less young farmers coming into the industry, there will be more opportunities for farmers to expand their land base. “There is huge potential in milk and dairy for my son,” he concluded.
New Zealand dairying facing more challenges than ever
New environmental pressures in the New Zealand (NZ) dairy industry have left many farmers questioning what a future farming system will look like, Colin Glass told the UGS conference last Thursday night.
As well as running his family-owned dairy and bull beef farms outside Canterbury, Glass is CEO of Dairy Holdings Ltd, a company that runs 76 farms across the South Island. His family originally hails from NI, moving to NZ in 1956.
At present, NZ has targets in place to be carbon-neutral by 2050, and to reduce methane emissions by up to 47% by 2050.
Glass maintains that there is “no silver bullet” to solving methane, with research ongoing on the likes of feed additives, vaccines and different forages (such as brassicas) that could reduce emissions.
But in the short term, the focus is on cutting methane emissions per ha farmed.
Glass presented data to show that methane per ha goes up as more feed is offered.
“At the moment we have only one lever to pull, and that is reducing the amount of feed eaten per ha. To get that reduction, NZ farmers are likely to have to pull out their least profitable feed first – that means supplement is likely to be removed,” said Glass.
However, if farmers go back to systems almost exclusively based on grass and forage, fertiliser nitrogen (N) is still required to grow grass to produce milk, and it is associated with nitrous oxide emissions, an important greenhouse gas.
The NZ government has also set exacting targets to improve water quality, and in particular reduce the leaching of N into waterways.
New ways will have to be found to grow forage.
“We have no option but to pull back on N as well. We have to go back to historical systems, but do that with new technologies, and do it well,” he said.
Despite the challenges, the NZ dairy industry has benefited from a relatively stable milk price over the last four years, on the back of strong sales in Asia.
With Fonterra recently increasing its forecast milk price for the 2020/21 season to a midpoint of NZ$7.20 per kg milk solids, and breakeven milk price around NZ$6 per kg, farmers are able to pay down debt.
“When milk price lifts, our expenses tend to lift to meet it,” warned Glass. “But dairy earnings for the top operators are as strong as I have ever seen,” he added.
New direction with composite sheep breeds
Back in the late 2000s, Kevin Stewart from Kelso in the Scottish Borders set new goals for his sheep farm that included increased profitability and reduced reliance on direct payments.
Having run a Lleyn flock alongside some pedigree Suffolks ewes, a decision to import some New Zealand (NZ) Suffolk bloodlines indirectly led him to the NZ Highlander breed, a composite consisting of Romney, Texel and Finn breeding.
“Years of heavy feeding and moddycoddling felt like wasted years. I knew things had to change,” he told the UGS conference last Wednesday.
Currently working with a flock consisting of 1,250 ewes and 320 gimmers on 270ha, Stewart initially used the Highlander to cross on to his Lleyn ewes.
“I suddenly realised it was possible for a ewe to lamb on her own, and rear two lambs without supplementary feed. At the time, it was almost amazing,” he said.
Since then he has developed a relationship with Innovis, the Welsh company leading in the supply of crossbred and maternal sheep genetics in Britain.
The ewes on the Stewart farm are now predominantly Highlander breeding, with about half bred pure to produce replacements and breeding stock for other farmers. Aberfield rams (Blue Leicester and Texel blood lines) are also used to produce breeding females for sale, with the remaining ewes crossed to Abermax (Texel x Charollais) and Aberblack (Suffolk x Texel x Charollais) rams to produce lambs for slaughter.
He also takes in ram lambs on behalf of Innovis and brings them through to the point of sale.
All ewes are housed at the start of the year on straw, and turned out pre-lambing in mid-March. According to Stewart, around 95% of his ewes lamb unassisted, with lambing % at 173%. Despite lambing 440 fewer ewes now than in the late 2000s, improved fertility and lamb survival means he is actually producing more lambs.
Stewart also has a contract with his vet, where there is an annual fee, but no visit charges.
“The vet comes out about every six weeks, and we look at a group of sheep and discuss things. We had a vet health plan in place before it was in vogue,” he said.
In 2019 he was named AgriScot Sheep Farmer of the Year.