Duration 5 years

Team and Leader  A. Dale, S.Mayne, C. Ferris, (ARINI, Hillsborough), A. Hopps, I. McCluggage, M.Mulholland (CAFRE), D.Anderson (Agri Food Economics Division), B Horan, P. Dillon, L. Shalloo (Teagasc)

Organisations involved ARINI. Teagasc, CAFRE, AFED

Background and Summary

Economic pressures on milk production continue to intensify, and with large scale changes to the structure of many dairy farms inevitable following recent legislative changes, the Northern Ireland dairy industry is facing a challenging future. The diversity of milk production systems in Northern Ireland also make the adoption of a single ‘blue print’ for successful and profitable milk production inappropriate.

 Furthermore, management decisions adopted by individual farmers are influenced by a wide range of pre-disposing and inter-relating factors. Climate, soil type, grass growth potential and availability of grazing land to the farm are examples of the important constraints on a dairy farm, with the relative importance of each of these factors dependent on geographic location. There is a general consensus that there will be further downward pressure on milk price, and so for milk production to remain viable, producers must retain their focus on lowering the costs of milk production. Increased reliance on grazed grass in dairy systems has long been advocated as a method to lower production costs, although a current AgriSearch project has identified a wide range in potential herbage production across Northern Ireland.

Given the complexity of factors that can influence choice of milk production systems, it is vital to determine potential farm performance across Northern Ireland. These issues are already being examined by Teagasc in the Northern counties of the Republic of Ireland across sixteen farms. An opportunity exists therefore to collaborate with Teagasc (Moorepark) and CAFRE, and integrate results from a combined study into a single decision support system. Only once potential farm performance is known can region specific targets be determined to identify the key areas of the farm business that producers need to improve, in order to maintain the profitability and the sustainability of the dairy sector.

Proposed programme:

The proposed programme will involve 10 dairy farms, selected from across Northern Ireland. Ideally, farms will be participants in the benchmarking programme operated by CAFRE, while supplementary data on grass growth and utilization and animal performance will be collected at regular intervals during the year. There will be 6 autumn calving and 4 spring calving farms selected to comples  ment the group of farms already being monitored by Teagasc. Farms will be monitored over three years, following the three stages highlighted below.

Stage 1. Intensive monitoring of physical and financial performance on each farm.

Data will be collected from farms over 3 years on environment, management strategy, animal performance and also further supplementary data examining the opportunities for expansion.  (This will be in addition to normal economic data collected through CAFRE benchmarking).

Stage 2. Determination of realistic region specific targets for variables measured in stage 1.

Based on the variability or potential measured across the farms in each region and the potential improvement that can achieved, targets will be set in respect of each regions capacity to grow grass, grassland management and animal performance. Targets will also be set for the overall efficiency of milk production, and for production costs

Stage 3. Develop decision support systems (DSS).

A simple, robust user-friendly web-based decision support system will be developed to assist farmers to achieve performance targets. This software will provide a number of key benefits including developing grassland management skills, and improving farmers focus on feed budgeting techniques. The DSS will incorporate the most recent research developments and will illustrate the consequences of various decisions made at farm level.

Measurements that will be conducted under stage 1 are as follows:

a.        Environment – climate, soil type, grass growth potential, grazing days and grass utilisation
b.        Management – fertiliser inputs, supplementary feed usage and details of grassland management
c.        Animal performance       - milk yield and composition, milk price, lactation length, quota per acre
- pregnancy rates, calving intervals and calving spread
- genetic potential
- body condition score, animal health and reasons for culling
d.        Supplementary data – unit cost of production, level of farm fragmentation, quality of farm infrastructure, expansion opportunities i.e. availability of land and alternative feeds



January 2006:         Commence study

January 2007:         Completion of year 1 and produce on-farm performance targets for 2nd year

January 2008:         Completion of year 2 and start final year (modify performance targets if necessary)

January 2009:         Completion of on-farm monitoring

December 2009:      Decision support tool produced

Final report to be submitted to AgriSearch in April 2010                                                


The study will provide an extensive and robust dataset from farms across Northern Ireland, thus also allowing more relevant and appropriate targets to be set for producers operating a range of systems. This project will assist in identifying new research priorities that can best meet the needs of the industry, with the industry also benefiting from the collaborative expertise of the research and technology transfer centres involved in the project.

FileDescriptionFile size
Download this file (D-28-06 Final AgriSearch report - July 2012.pdf)D-28-06 - Final ReportMeasurement of physical and financial performance across 10 farms over three years to identify the main drivers of profitability on Northern Ireland dairy farms (D-28-06) - Final Report2053 kB