David Brown is six months into his two-year presidency of the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU).

The Fermanagh suckler beef farmer held the position of UFU deputy president for four years prior to taking the helm.

He recently held a press event on his 200ac farm in Co. Fermanagh, where he explained his own farm system and his priorities in the role of UFU president.

Farm partnership

David Brown works in partnership with his son Neil; the new business arrangement was established  a number of months ago.

Their south west Fermanagh farm extends to 200ac. It is characterised by heavy soils, capable of growing excellent crops of grass.

“We have doubled the size of the farm over a 30-year period,” David explained.

“Gravel tunnel drainage systems have been used extensively to improve the production potential of the business.

“The farm is fenced to facilitate a rotational grazing system. Over the years, we have also added significantly to building stock on the farm. Three cuts of silage are taken each year.”

David and Neil manage a herd of 70, top-quality, suckler cows with all calves brought through to beef or reared as heifer replacements.

UFU president David Brown farms in partnership with his son Nial near Florenceourt in Co. Fermanagh

The herd is split into spring- and autumn-calving groups. The cows have a strong Simmental heritage. The Browns use AI (artificial insemination) sires extensively on the herd. Over recent years, a Charolais sweeper bull was also available on the farm.

The father and son team are currently discussing the merits of replacing him or committing to a breeding policy that is totally focused on the use of AI.

Replacement heifers are calved down at 24 months. All male calves are finished as bulls at 16 months with carcass weights averaging 400kg.

“Bulls can be finished much more effectively than bullocks,” David confirmed. “And the plants won’t penalise us on price, provided they are younger than 16 months at time of slaughter.

“It takes 1.3t of concentrates to take a bull through from birth through to finishing on this farm. In the weeks leading up to slaughter,they are consuming 8kg of meal but securing growth rates of up 2kg/head/day.

“We would never achieve this level of performance from steers. Our finished heifers are sold through the local mart in Enniskillen. It’s an approach that delivers the best price for these animals,” he explained.

“And it works well, provided we are not under bTB movement restrictions. There is a lot of bTB in the south west Fermanagh area at the present time.”

Replacement heifers on the Brown farm

Priorities for the UFU president

David Brown told those gathered on his farm that he is focused on three core issues for his term:

  • The introduction of a new Bovine TB (bTB) eradication policy for Northern Ireland;
  • Better communication of the role that farmers already play in helping to tackle climate change;
  • Getting food security higher up the policy priority ladder in London.

Where bTB is concerned, the new union president believes that simply repeating habits of the past will do nothing more than deliver the same old results. And, as he is quick to point out, these do not make for happy reading.

Currently, almost one in 10 cattle herds across Northern Ireland will be locked up at any one time because of the disease. This number includes farms that have ‘gone down’ in a test or are directly associated with business that are already locked up.

The current bTB testing, compensation and control measures in Northern Ireland are costing the public purse £45 million per annum.

However, Brown sees the prospect of badger culling in ‘hot spot’ disease areas, as being the change of policy direction that can radically improve the bTB dynamic.

It is a core recommendation contained within the new disease control strategy endorsed by Northern Ireland’s former agriculture minister Edwin Poots earlier this year.

The new bTB policy secured cross-party support at the Stormont Assembly.

However, all of this comes with one, very important proviso. Farmer funding to the tune of £1 million per annum will be required to pay for the envisaged badger cull.

It is proposed that voluntary levies on milk and slaughtered cattle – 0.02p/L and £1/head respectively – will be introduced to fund the new measure, which should kick-in during the late summer / early autumn period of 2023.

UFU support for badger cull

According to the UFU representative, farmer funding for this measure was the only option available, if this measure was ever to be introduced.

A separate company will be established to carry out the badger cull. A mix of night-time shooting and trapping of badgers in ‘hot spot’ areas will be taken in this regard.

However, Brown has made it clear that the badger remains a protected species.

In practical terms this means that no more than 30% of Northern Ireland’s total land area can be included within the envisaged ‘hot spot’ regions.

The new culling strategy will allow for approximately 75% of the badgers within a ‘hot spot’ to be removed within a six-week period during the months of September and October.

Badger populations will be maintained at this reduced level for a minimum period of four years, after which it is envisaged that a vaccination policy will be introduced.

“This is not a badger eradication campaign. The clear end point is to have healthy populations of badgers and cattle living beside each other in the countryside,” Brown explained.

“The bTB eradication policies put in place over the past 50 years have not worked. Something has to change.

“It is universally accepted that badgers are a source of bTB. Experience in other regions confirms that the selective culling of these animals will act to reduce overall bTB levels,” he added.

Climate change

The UFU president will have a prime opportunity to highlight the role already played by farmers in addressing the challenge posed by global warming change while the COP 27 negotiations take place in Egypt later this month.

Coinciding with the event, the UFU will be hosting its own climate change debate in Belfast. The event will see David Brown deliver a keynote presentation on the subject.

This will be followed by a panel discussion involving local MLAs, MPs and representatives from the House of Lords.

COP 27 takes place in the wake of Northern Ireland agreeing climate change legislation, which puts significant pressure on local agriculture, in terms of the greenhouse gas (GHG) emission thresholds that have been agreed for the sector.

Food security

The new UFU leader has noted that the European Union (EU) is now taking the issue of food security more seriously.

“Unfortunately, this is not the case in the UK. The current Conservative government remains totally wedded to the forging of free trade deals that will see significant quantities of cheap food imported from around the world,” Brown stated.

“Meanwhile, the evolving farm policy framework in England and Wales will do nothing to improve food self sufficiency levels.

“The world’s population continues to grow. The need to produce the food for all these people on a sustainable basis will be a fundamental global challenge during the period ahead,” he added.

Other issues for the UFU president

The UFU president said that recognises that animal-health related issues are going to take up a lot of his time over the coming 18 months.

A case in point is Northern Ireland’s Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) eradication programme. Confirmed numbers of persistently infected (PI) animals have risen significantly over recent months.

“The fact that the Republic of Ireland has been declared officially free of BVD is another complicating factor,” Brown commented.

“We now have a scenario unfolding within which the export of live cattle from Northern Ireland to the rest of the island is prohibited, to all intents and purposes.

“It also seems likely that cattle from the Republic of Ireland may well not be allowed to come north to compete in events like the Royal Ulster Winter Fair and Balmoral Show.

“Neighbouring farms should also be made aware of the fact that PI animals are in their locality,” said Brown.

The out workings of Brexit will be another priority for Brown’s presidency. Where the Northern Ireland Protocol is concerned, the Fermanagh man has very clear opinions.

“We must retain free access to the EU single market,” he stressed.

“Large numbers of sheep and a very high proportion of our milk go south for processing. But we also need to see an easing of the restrictions on trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

“One very symbolic gesture on the part of the EU would be that of allowing pedigrees stock sent over to sales in GB allowed back into Northern Ireland  without any delays, in the event of them not being sold,” he said.