The first of four webinars, making up the 2021 Young Farmers’ Clubs of Ulster (YFCU) Agri-Food Conference, saw Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots MLA outline his vision for the future of agriculture in Northern Ireland.

He said that he wanted to see an industry growing from a production point of view but also one that would have a sustainable base, from both an economic and environmental perspective. Having young people – men and women – working at the heart of the industry would also be important.

Edwin Poots added:

“Making this happen will require a support scheme that meets the specific needs of agriculture in Northern Ireland.

Retaining a relevant area-based payment will be important in this regard. But so will be the introduction of coupled payments for suckler cows and breeding sheep.

Significantly, the minister did not foresee his proposed coupled payments mirroring the headage subsidies that had previously been available in Northern Ireland. Rather, he envisaged the new support measures playing a key role in delivering the attainment of greater efficiency levels within the cattle and sheep sectors.

Agri-food conference

This year’s conference has the overall theme: Adapt and Evolve. The first evening, supported by Dunbia, gave the panellists an opportunity to discuss the future structure and the specific prospects for agri-food in Northern Ireland.

Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) Beef and Lamb Committee chairman, Sam Chesney, said that farmers must become more efficient.

“The scope to become more efficient within the beef and sheep sectors is immense. Using better bulls and breeding rams is crucial for both sectors moving forward,” Chesney said.

“Our grassland management standards must also improve. Currently the average dry matter grassland output on Northern Ireland’s farms is 5.5t/ha. This compares with a potential output figure of 13t. Looking forward, the industry must also become more data driven.

And all of this must be obtained through the implementation of production practices that are much more environmentally-friendly.

Dawn Meats / Dunbia head of agriculture, Sarah Haire, told the conference that the impact of Covid-19 had driven fundamental change within the group.

“Our food service business closed down overnight at the outset of the original lockdown. It was as if we had fallen off a cliff. Countering this, our retail business started to increase significantly, given that consumers were eating more from home.

These developments brought about major change in the product mix that we had to bring to market.

“In tandem with this we had to deliver a safe environment for all our workers. What’s more these changes had to be made in a very short space of time. So, to stay the least, the last ten months have thrown many challenges for the business.”

Sustainable goals

According to Haire, the Dawn Meats group is committed to significantly lowering its environmental and carbon footprint over the coming years.

“Farmer suppliers will be part of this discussion,” she stressed.

Harriet Wilson, McDonald’s agriculture and sustainable sourcing manager, confirmed that the business will remain committed to working closely with UK and Irish beef suppliers into the future.

“This is what our customers want,” Wilson said.

Our aim is to work closely with beef farmers and processors in Northern Ireland on a sustainable basis. McDonald’s is totally committed to driving innovation within the beef industry.

The McDonald’s representative also highlighted the major change that Covid-19 has effected within its business.

“Drive-through sales have increased by 40% over the past 10 months while deliveries have risen from 100 per day per restaurant up to a current figure of 250 per day,” she added.

LMC outlook

Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) chief executive Ian Stevenson explained that the last 10 months have seen stakeholders within the beef and lamb sector work closely together, to an extent that he had never witnessed before.

“Policies have been agreed across a wide range of subject areas. The response from the general public in showing their support for home-produced, farm quality-assured beef and lamb has been very encouraging,” he said.

Markets are strong at the moment. In order to deliver the best possible farmer prices in the future, it is important that our processes have access to all the world’s meat markets.

“In this way, they can secure the best possible value from all parts of the carcass. Beef and lamb Northern Ireland has a great story to tell. As we look to the future the spectre of BSE [Bovine spongiform encephalopathy] will be consigned to the history books for good.

“In addition our APHIS [Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service]traceability system is world class as is our farm quality assurance scheme.

“Our animal disease and welfare standards considerably out match those achieved in other countries. So, yes, beef and lamb from Northern Ireland can look forward to a very bright future,” Stevenson concluded.