AgriSearch chairman, Prof. Gerry Boyle, has called for the societal impact of the many changes taking place within agriculture to be fully researched.

Speaking at a recent AgriSearch workshop, held to help identify future research priorities for agriculture in Northern Ireland, he said that work/life balance is a key factor in this mix.

He said: “We also need at look at the impact of change within agriculture across the generations. The reality is that farming still represents a career opportunity for young people.”

Societal impact

According to Boyle, research is needed to examine the social sustainability and work/life balance on dairy, beef and sheep farms and to identify opportunities to develop new socially sustainable work practices.

The potential of advances in artificial intelligence and other automated technologies to monitor animal performance and behaviour and reduce labour requirements for breeding and herd management should also be investigated.

AgriSearch was established in 1997. The aims of the charity are to advance education, for the public benefit, in particular, by conducting and commissioning research into the improvement and development of sheep, beef and dairy farming.

AgriSearch also disseminates and publishes the results of such research and also promotes the improvement of animal health and welfare in sheep, beef and dairy farming in Northern Ireland.

Several research priorities for the future have already been identified by the organisation.

These include the need to examine, and mitigate, the effects of predicted climate change on the resilience of ruminant livestock farms when considering impacts on grass growth, the ability to utilise grass under both grazing and cutting management, and potential impacts on animal and plant disease.

Further work will also be required to evaluate the impact of low emission slurry spreading equipment (LESS) technology on slurry contamination of swards and subsequent implications on silage quality and animal health.

Future research should also explore opportunities to mitigate contamination and further reduce ammonia emissions, according to the organisation.

This work should include an evaluation of the impact of slurry additives on the nutritive value of slurry and potential impact on ammonia emissions.

Further research

According to AgriSearch, additional work is required to update nutrient management planning tools to ensure they are fit-for-purpose and user friendly.

They should also be based on the latest recommendations for crop nutrient requirement and streamline data entry from the Northern Ireland’s Soil Nutrient Health Scheme.

Further investigations will also be needed to develop new on-farm methods to assess soil carbon, both in the top 30cm of soil and deep soil carbon, and to explore opportunities to enhance soil carbon sequestration through novel land management strategies.

Driving grass and forage growth on a more sustainable basis will be required into the future. As a consequence, research is required to identify grass species and varieties which are productive at lower nitrogen levels and which are compatible with legumes and other species.

Further research is also needed to optimise the potential of grass/clover swards in areas with heavy soils and high annual rainfall.

This work should seek to identify compatible grass, white and red clover varieties.

The development of management guidelines for precision application of fertilisers based on crop requirement and nutrient supply from soil, organic manures and nitrogen fixation by legumes.

Another AgriSearch priority for the future centres on the need to accelerate the rate of genetic progress in both the beef and sheep sectors.

Attending the recent AgriSearch workshop (l-r): John McLenaghan, deputy president, UFU; Peter Morrow, Morrow Communications

This will be achieved through the adoption of a national genotyping programme coupled with improved recording of animal performance, health and fertility traits.

Further work should be undertaken – as a priority – to understand factors influencing age at calving and age at slaughter in the beef sector, according to AgriSearch.

Two key priorities linked to the emissions challenge facing agriculture in Northern Ireland have been identified.

AgriSearch has specifically recommended new research to examine the implications of using GWP* in assessing the impact of the ruminant livestock sector on GHG emissions and the use of GWP* assessments in setting targets for the Northern Ireland agri-food sector for 2030 and beyond.  

The organisation would also like to see new research initiated and published to validate the current atmospheric ammonia emission models, based on measurements undertaken under local farming conditions.

These figures could then be used in policy development.