Northern Ireland's poor milk composition is costing farmers poor milk prices, according to Agri Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI) researcher Dr. Conrad Ferris.
Speaking on AFBI's recent webinar 'The Future of Dairy Production to 2030', Dr. Ferris explained milk composition in Northern Ireland lagged behind that in the rest of the UK and behind some competitor European countries.
"If we look to see why that is, unfortunately, the graph [above] illustrates very clearly that milk composition really hasn't changed in Northern Ireland over the last 25 years," Dr. Ferris said.
"It really has flatlined and any improvement has been marginal.
For a country where a very large proportion of its milk is used for processing, I would suggest that poor milk composition does represent a lost opportunity for our industry.
Dairy Council for Northern Ireland figures showed the industry was worth £925 million a year to the region including £323 million a year in export sales.
One reason suggested for the plateau was that farmers were not being sent a clear message that milk composition matters.
On one slide, Dr. Ferris compared two hypothetical farms with different approaches to milk production.
The first farm, 'Farm A', produced 8,000L/cow with average Northern Ireland fat and protein content. While Farm B produced 7,500L/cow but with a European level of fat and protein.
"The two farms are producing the same amount of milk solids, and in general that's what our milk processors are interested in. However, at a milk price, for example of 26p/L, Farm B is £40/cow less well off than Farm A," Dr. Ferris explained.
If the milk price is 32p/L, that's £70/cow less well off. So for a 100-cow herd that's £7,000 less going to that farmer. Despite the fact, he's actually providing exactly the same amount of milk solids.
"If we look at what has happened in the Republic of Ireland, we can see that there has been an improvement in milk solids over the last 25 years, and it is continuing.
"Admittedly, milk fat there was at a much lower base, but if we look at the reasons for that a lot of it comes down to the payment structure.
Around the year 2,000, most processors brought in a solids-based payment structure. More recently, when you can really see milk composition has taken off, they introduced an A+B-C payments structure.
"The Republic of Ireland milk processors sent a very clear message to their farmers that milk solids were what is required.
"And perhaps that's what's needed in Northern Ireland if we are going to change the current situation."
How do we improve?
Dr. Ferris suggested farmers look to a combination of nutrition and genetics to see how they could improve their herd's milk solids.
"There are sires out there which could allow farmers out there to greatly improve fat and protein content within a couple of generations very dramatically," he added.