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Dairy Council

2022 Fact book

Foreword by Dr Mike Johnston

Our 2021 Fact Book focussed on energy, resources, and the role the dairy supply chain is playing in Northern Ireland’s circular economy.

Since then, the Department for the Economy has published its new Energy Strategy with a significant focus on decarbonisation, and the Northern Ireland Assembly approved the DAERA Minister’s Climate Change Act which places legally binding climate change targets on Northern Ireland for the first time.

As well as this legislative requirement to reduce emissions, our customers are also requiring our supply chain to take action to reduce emissions.  So on both counts, legislative and customers, our journey is not optional.  

Dr Mike Johnston MBE

Many of the existing carbon reduction techniques such as low-emission slurry spreading, energy saving, and renewable energy technologies have become more commonplace on dairy farms, and this has contributed to major savings over the last 32 years. Recent DAERA figures released show that since 1990 the carbon intensity per litre of milk has reduced by 36.9%.

The sector has already been taking significant strides to reduce its carbon footprint but now with legally binding targets, the focus moves to how farmers can be recognised as the custodians of the environment in future agricultural policy.

The next stage in the dairy sustainability journey will be to capture the carbon emission data on a farm by farm basis to allow management decisions to be made tailored for their own farm.

A number of dairy farmers have already been participating in carbon modelling initiatives such as the ARCzero carbon neutral acceleration programme and local processors have been making significant investments in their own facilities to improve their emissions and use of renewable resources.

We welcome the fact that significant resources within DAERA, the dairy sector and its supply chain are focussed on developing data collection and analysis capability to ensure we continue to take a data-led approach to tackling climate change.

We look forward to continuing to engage with the Department as it prepares its sectoral plans, and I am grateful to AFBI ,CAFRE and the Institute for Global Food Security and Queen’s University for the work they have already done in the area of sustainability which has placed Northern Ireland on a strong footing to compete on the world stage.

This Fact Book has been produced in conjunction with the European Milk Forum (EMF) and with financial assistance from the European Union. The EMF ‘Sustainable Dairy’ initiative is co-ordinating a new and informed dialogue with key stakeholders on the environmental actions being taken in five European countries. We are grateful to the EMF and EU for their support as we highlight the positive contribution that the dairy sector is making towards the environmental sustainability agenda in Northern Ireland.

The series of short lectures and panel discussions that make up the Fact Book were filmed at the 2022 EU Sustainable Dairy Symposium focussing on 'Sustainability in Practice', bringing together contributions from across the dairy sector.

Dr Mike Johnston, MBE

Chief Executive, Dairy Council for Northern Ireland

Norman Fulton:
The Policy Perspective

Norman Fulton is Deputy Secretary (Food and Farming Group) in DAERA.

Norman provided an update on DAERA policy approach to sustainable agriculture as the Department seeks to develop a new policy context for Northern Ireland outside the EU and meet its obligations under the new Climate Change Act with a focus on sustainability, economic viability, and productivity growth.

He stressed there was a need to decouple agriculture from negative environmental consequences, building and investing in our environmental capital and creating conditions for an economic return for on-farm environmental assets.

Key data collection and analytical systems for DAERA going forward, which will help inform future policy and on-farm decisions, will include:

  • Farm carbon benchmarking

  • Ruminant genetics

  • Soil nutrient health

Commercially this will help Northern Ireland agri-food illustrate its sustainability journey in a competitive global marketplace.

DAERA staff are also exploring first calving incentives and a dairy feed research challenge fund to improve on farm emissions and productivity.

Farming with nature will replace the current environmental farming scheme, with an initial focus on reversing declining biodiversity trends through habitat restoration.

Our approach will be to seek to ensure that the environment becomes both an enterprise and a profit centre on farms ... the better you do it, the better the reward.

Norman Fulton
Deputy Secretary (Food & Farming Group), DAERA

CEO Panel Discussion

CEOs from the three  main dairy processing companies came together for a panel discussion on the sustainability journey of the Northern Ireland Dairy Sector.

Host Dr Mike Johnston MBE PhD was joined by Michael Hanley, Chief Executive of Lakeland Dairies, Paul Vernon, Chief Executive of Glanbia Cheese, and Nick Whelan, Group Chief Executive of Dale Farm.

The three Chief Executives discussed the importance of implementing sustainability plans and making changes on farm and in the factory. There was broad agreement amongst the panellists on the need to ensure the long-term sustainability of the sector for future generations, environmentally and economically. 

Sustainability is an integral business priority, and these efficiencies can lead to lower costs, higher profits as well as a reduction in environmental impact, with emphasis placed on getting more from less, as well as better and more considered use of resources. 

All three CEOs emphasised that apart from legislation, the needs of customers meant that the NI dairy sector’s sustainability journey is not optional.

It was stated that Northern Ireland mustn’t fall behind the curve in relation to competitiveness and consumer expectations were also addressed.

From a business sustainability point of view, we're really at the crossroads here, on one hand saying, is this genuinely important to our right exist, is this our right to grow or is this something we're going to keep talking about, being busy along the edges on, or address this full on.

Nick Whelan
Group Chief Executive, Dale Farm

Customers are realistic that this isn't going to happen overnight, there's a journey to travel, but it's important that the momentum starts. It's a joined-up process from the farm, through to the factory, through to the customers. Let's get on to the implementation phase.

Michael Hanley
Chief Executive, Lakeland Dairies

From our prespective, sustainability has to mean a profitable supply chain, from the start of the supply chain on farm, the processors and ultimately customers and consumers. When we talk about sustainability, we need to look at it in that light, the business model must be sustainable. This journey is not optional. The longer we wait, the further we fall behind.

Paul Vernon
Chief Executive, Glanbia Cheese

Wilco Brouwer de Koning:
A Dutch Perspective

Dutch farmer Wilco Brouwer de Koning provided a snapshot of the dairy sector in the Netherlands, which has 15,000 dairy farms, producing 13.6 billion kg of milk per annum, with a national herd of 1.5 million cows.

The Dutch dairy sector contributes €7.5 billion to the economy, sustaining 47,000 jobs.

Wilco addressed challenges faced by the sector, such as an aging population with the number of farmers without a successor increasing, low land mobility at 1.5-2% per year, and fewer farms with farmers leaving the profession. 

Much of the sustainability agenda in the Netherlands is driven by Brussels with a focus on Biodiversity and Nature, Water usage, Climate, and Nitrogen. The most pressing sustainability issues in the Netherlands are:

  • Ammonia emissions

  • Greenhouse Gases

  • Water

  • Chemical Crop Protection

  • Fine dust

  • Antibiotics

  • Biodiversity

Wilco Brouwer de Koning:

Around eight years ago in the Netherlands, the dairy sector started a discussion around Biodiversity looking areas such as insects, soil, water quality, climate, and landscape, attempting to define what is biodiversity and how can it be measured.

Off the back of these conversations, seven Biodiversity monitors were developed. The seven Key Performance Indicators (KPI) were designed to collect science-based data from the farm to be used across the whole Dutch dairy sector.

The seven KPIs used by Dutch farmers to monitor Biodiversity are:

  • GHG emissions

  • % of permanent grassland

  • % of protein produced on farm

  • Ammonia emissions

  • Nitrogen soil surplus

  • Nature & Landscape

  • % herb-rich grassland

Wilco argues that farmers need to be incentivised to promote biodiversity on their farms and that there needs to be buy-in from the whole of society to support farmers on this journey. For example, in the Netherlands, farmers are paid a higher milk price if they score highly on KPIs, banks offer loans with lower interest rates for farmers with good KPIs and some local governments pay farmers if they perform well on their KPIs.

Looking towards the future there are three further KPIs still in the development phase and yet to be implemented focussing on water quality, use of pesticides and phosphate usage.

You can hear more from Wilco on Biodiversity in the video below.

Farmers need allies not opponents

Wilco Brouwer de Koning, Dutch Dairy Farmer

Wilco Brouwer de Koning:
Wilco’s Farm

Wilco Brouwer de Koning farms in partnership with his brother Gijsbert. The farm is located in Heiloo, a village in the west of the Netherlands, 30 km north of Amsterdam. 

The farm sits on 125 hectares (310 acres) of land, 90 acres of which is reserved for habitats for meadow birds and 15 acres are used to grow maize or wheat, the rest is grass used for grazing and silage. 

Wilco’s grandfather started the farm in 1950 with 6 cows, and now there are 185 dairy cows, with a total production of almost 1.7 million kg of milk a year (9,200 kg/year/cow).  

The farm is spread over two locations, separating the dairy cows from the dry cows and the youngstock. The main location is in the centre of a 12-hectare forest and around the forest, there is 90 acres for grazing, with 25,000 villagers living in the surrounding area. 

For the last 15 years Wilco and his brother have worked to become more nature inclusive, prioritising; better soil, more biodiversity, fewer inputs, diversifying their income, collaboration with other organisations, and connections with the villagers. 

In addition to dairy farming, Wilco also spends two and a half days a week working as a board member of the Dutch Dairy Farmers Organisation. He is responsible for: Biodiversity, EU Common Agricultural Policy, Dairy International and Labour on dairy farms.

Farmers' Panel

Dutch farmer Wilco Brouwer De Koning was joined in a panel by three Northern Ireland dairy farmers, Ian McClelland from Loughbrickland, Mark Blelock from Aldergrove and Hugh Harbison from Aghadowey to discuss the future direction of sustainability in farming.

The four farmers shared their experiences of implementing efficiencies on farm and changing the way they do things to reduce emissions and bolster sustainability. 

Ian and Hugh spoke about their participation in the carbon modelling initiative, the ArcZero project, which aims to measure and manage carbon flows at the individual farm level to empower farmers to make positive change towards carbon zero farming. Mark spoke of measures he implemented to improve his grassland and nutrient management and the benefits gained through these efficiencies. 

The farmers discussed the differences and similarities between Northern Ireland and the Netherlands dairy sectors and Wilco closed the discussion predicting that the next step in the journey will centre around innovation and new technology.

As regards reducing emissions, our focus is more on being as productive and efficient as possible and, as a consequence, we've found that we've reduced emissions.

Mark Blelock
NI Dairy Farmer

This is coming whether we like it or not and we have to remain open-minded and be prepared for the challenge ahead, keep going and hopefully there will be gains for our own businesses and the greater environmental good as well.

Ian McClelland
NI Dairy Farmer

There has to be a collaborative approach, the milk buyers need to tell us what they want us to do and we need to be incentivised to produce good quality milk all the time. We need to crawl before we can walk, we need to get the basics right first and we need to be led by the science all the time.

Hugh Harbison
NI Dairy Farmer

Closing comments by Dr Mike Johnston

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