AgriSearch, the Northern Ireland Agricultural Research and Development Council, has had an extra-ordinary year according to chairman James Campbell.
Reporting at the AGM of the Council, the chairman referred to the recent cuts in government funding and changes in the costing model for projects carried out by the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).
“Over this past year AgriSearch committee members, most of them farmers and all of them unpaid volunteers, worked their way through a DARD consultation process and had several new research projects approved in principle for co-funding.
“These projects could be of real practical value in helping make NI Farming Plc more competitive and more environmentally friendly. But work on these projects won’t start this year much to the frustration of those on the AgriSearch board and our sheep, beef and dairy advisory committees.
“This is not in keeping with the regional government’s acceptance of the Agri-Food Strategy Board’s report. That report urged the NI government to commission research into ‘best practice’ systems for sustainable intensification on-farm. It also called for a doubling in the draw-down of EU funding for agri-food innovation over the coming three years.
“Until now most research projects selected for support by AgriSearch have been co-funded by DARD and carried out in co-operation with AFBI.
““With AFBI costings for research being pushed up since the 2013 report of the NI Comptroller and Auditor General, the continuation of agricultural research based in the province is an issue for DARD and AFBI to address urgently.”
“Farming, like any business competing globally, must continuously innovate to survive and thrive” James added.
Looking beyond regional co-funding frustrations the AgriSearch chairman highlighted the UK government Agri-Tech Strategy fund worth £160 million to support advances in ‘sustainable intensification’ with the livestock sector as a priority.
“This is an opportunity for NI farmers through AgriSearch to be involved with UK wide research projects.
“Further opportunities for AgriSearch exist in the EU Horizon 2020 programme, which is investing four billion euro in agri-food research and innovation over six years.
“Given the evolving environment in which AgriSearch exists the Trustees are undertaking a strategic review of the organisation. All involved in AgriSearch are adamant it exists to enhance returns for lamb, beef and milk producers. To that end it was decided to work with AHWNI, Animal Health and Welfare NI, which is pushing forward with schemes to reduce and eliminate unregulated costly endemic conditions such as BVD and Johne’s disease that are having a major impact on herd health and performance.
“Also in this past year closer links with the Livestock and Meat Commission for NI proved very successful, with the LMC having opted to help fund sheep research projects selected for support by AgriSearch.”
FLUKE AND SOIL PROJECTS UNDERWAY
“SEVERAL key projects supported by AgriSearch started this past year, including the major Liver Fluke study being led by Liverpool University,” Jason Rankin told the AGM
“Though mainly funded by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council for the first time it brings all the UK ruminant R & D levy bodies together in supporting a project.
“This means the farming sector through EBLEX, AgriSearch, HCC, QMS and DairyCo are co-funding investigations of real value to all British cattle and sheep farmers. Work on a scale, which AgriSearch alone could not fund.”
“On a regional level this past year GrassCheck continued to provide farmers with current and predicted grass growth figures. As a bonus GrassCheck data proved pivotal in providing the evidence needed for the £1 million DARD Fodder Transport Scheme bringing lower cost feed from the mainland in the horrendous spring of 2013.
“Looking ahead to 2015 the results will become available from a new project on soil compaction across a range of NI farms. This work part funded by AgriSearch and undertaken by AFBI will also evaluate remedial methods on a variety of farms. Plans are afoot to run a series of farm walks on soil compaction early next summer.
“In total 10 projects selected by AgriSearch for £360,281 of co-funding were to be started in the past financial year.2013/14 provided £1,354,988 of complementary funding was available from other sources including DARD.
“However, the Department was unable to commission any new projects under the Evidence and Innovation Strategy in 2014/15, but these projects are now in the call for support during 2015/16.
“Thankfully three projects supported by AgriSearch, which were being co-funded by DARD under the Research Challenge Fund Programme, are set to commence in the next few weeks.
“As the chairman has highlighted, in response to regional government financial problems AgriSearch is looking to co-fund research of real relevance to farmers in conjunction with other organisation across these islands and the EU. Indeed AgriSearch has hosted meetings in NI of both the European Cattle Innovation Partnership and the UK Red Meat Joint R & D Committee.
“ A golden opportunity to showcase the on-farm research being done through AFBI, which is exactly the type of bottom up approach the European Commission envisions in their Horizon 2020 Programme.”
Paying tribute to those at AFBI and CAFRE, who worked so closely with AgriSearch Jason noted the success of a range of joint Knowledge Transfer initiatives, including farm walks, booklets, IT tools and industry seminars.
“Two AgriSearch funded PhD students Amanda Dunn and Mark Little started their work in Sept 2013. Amanda’s thesis is on ‘Colostrum for Beef and Dairy Calves in NI’ and Mark, an experienced vet, is aiming to identity relationships between nutrition and immune function in dairy cattle.”
Concluding his AGM report AGM Jason emphasised that in order to avail of new opportunities for research funding AgriSearch is moving beyond being merely a co-funder of research to taking on a much more proactive role.
HALE AND FAREWELL
After six years’ service as Trustees, Mary McCormack and David Workman have stepped down from the AgriSearch board. Thanking them, Chairman James Campbell also paid tribute to the nine years service by Douglas Rowe, who retired from the board in October 2013 and was replaced by Wilbert Mayne.
Three new Trustees were welcomed onto the Board at the AGM; Allister Mitchell, Michael Bell and John Henning.
The chairman said: “The amount of time, experience and expertise our unpaid Trustees and advisory committee members willingly devote to AgriSearch is a great contribution to the future competitiveness of NI Farming Plc”.