Hillsborough, the research centre for dairy, beef and sheep in Northern Ireland held open days this week for the first time in six years.

The research centre has a long history and some valuable long-term research studies ongoing. One particular trial measures the carbon sequestration from grassland soils running over 50 years.

The Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), like all institutions down through the years, has evolved in terms of leadership and direction.

Right now the DAERA (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs) led research institute is very much looking at the environmental impact of policy changes.

I’m not sure if the fact that it is Department-led research is the explanation as to why so few farmers engaged with Hillsborough this week.

Farmers should be knocking doors down seeking solutions from the researchers. Never before has the industry been so challenged. There are over 25,000 active farmers in Northern Ireland. There was a fraction of them in Hillsborough.

This week, the researchers talked about the importance of soil health, solutions for grass based systems, the importance of genetic advances, environmental challenges and why young stock management is so important.

The challenges around surplus phosphorus, ammonia and methane are particularly important in Northern Ireland.

High milk production per cow in a flat, all year round system of milk, means pushing the limits on feed and fertiliser. The researchers suggest every hectare of land in Northern Ireland has 11kg of surplus phosphorus per year.

Confined systems where stock are indoors all year produce 57% more ammonia per cow. This challenge is primarily the same challenge facing European countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

The research agenda then evolves around how to manage the nutrients, capturing them, squeezing it, drying it, trying to use nutrients in other ways.

In my opinion, this is where dairy farmers south of the border are heading if the stocking rate derogation is lost. They will be forced to adopt higher input systems to maintain volumes sold per farm.


The shift, that transition is happening already. Listening to the AFBI researchers, it means the sector simply shifts from one environmental pressure to another.

Getting back to Northern Ireland – why the apathy among farmers to engage with potential solutions, to query, to steer, to test the researchers? There seems to be a real disconnect between the farmers and the current research programme.

Are the farmers getting conspiracy theories from those with a vested interest? Is the farm advisory link with research broken or damaged in Northern Ireland? There seems to be a disjointed approach between CAFRE (the advisory arm) and AFBI (the researchers).

Is AgriSearch the vehicle for farm production research, and if so, why? Are farmers in denial and just blocking out all talk of environmental issues? Yes, there are probably some farmers in this boat.

That’s not right either. Whatever the reason, the value of independent, production and profit-driven research has never been more important for the industry.


In Northern Ireland, the individual parts might be there, but it needs to get its act together. It’s clearly broken and dysfunctional.

You can blame what you like, the weather, time of year etc. Farmers need to engage. They need to participate and drive the research agenda – not the Department.

CAFRE – the advisory arm needs to be part of that central axis. Research sitting on shelves gathers dust. As a start, CAFRE needs to re-establish the discussion group network – it’s absolutely crazy to think this is dismantled and farmers are left in limbo.

This week we should have seen advisers leading teams of active and engaged farmers around Hillsborough.

Research needs to operate much more independently, and researchers need to be more aligned to farmers and their everyday concerns.

The Department can’t call the shots on research. It can’t all be policy driven. I’ve no problem if researchers are involved in nutrient research on greenhouse gases. However, you just can’t put this, and nothing else, front and centre if you want farmers to engage.

On farm profitability, farmer wellbeing, clear direction on farm production systems, and new innovations etc all build into what makes a farm and food production system work.

Isolating environmental policy research as the central and only cog sustaining farmers delivers what we got this week – apathy, frustration, a disconnect.

Ultimately, this trajectory means no industry change, the problems persist, and long-term, as an industry you get superseded and left behind.

This is no good for anyone in the sector.

There are enough good people in AFBI, CAFRE, DAERA, AgriSearch and importantly farmers, in Northern Ireland with farmers’ intentions front and centre to turn this around.

Business interests or Department policy driven interests only, can’t or shouldn’t dictate what is happening in food and farming in Northern Ireland. Real leaders, please come forward.