The 61st Annual Conference of the Ulster Grassland Society (UGS) took place on Tuesday, January 21, 2020, when almost 200 delegates gathered at the Dunadry Hotel, Templepatrick, to hear a number of well-delivered presentations focused on ‘getting back to business’.

Annual Conference

The conference was chaired by newly elected society president – Charlie Kilpatrick – who introduced each of the speakers.

Opening speaker

Tony Evans, a farmer and business consultant from The Andersons Centre, opened up proceedings on Tuesday.

He gave a wide-ranging presentation on his views of business management and the importance of developing young people in farming.

He considered that challenges really are opportunities and encouraged delegates to focus on balance sheet growth.

He also highlighted the importance of having one-third of income to cover variable costs; one-third to cover fixed costs and one-third for you.

Second speaker

The next speaker was dairy farmer Roger Hildreth. He outlined his grass-based dairy farming operation in the Vale of York, where he is endeavouring to develop a sustainable and successful farming business for the next generation.

His dairy herd of 110 cows is currently achieving 4,779L of milk from forage.

On the farm there is a major focus on rearing dairy replacements with attention to detail key to success.

Heifers are targeted to have a 400kg bulling weight having achieved 0.82kg daily live weight gain (DLWG) with extensive use of calf coats and routine veterinary tasks avoided during poor weather.

All heifers are genomically tested with sexed semen used. This allows the bottom 10% of heifers to be excluded from the herd to ensure better genetic progress.

Roger highlighted many of the challenges facing farming at present – including veganism and climate change – which is a particular focus on his farm.

Third speaker

After lunch, which is always a good opportunity for further discussion, Nick Davis from Wales outlined his farming career and the development and growth of his farm since completing a Nuffield farming scholarship.

His switch to dairying in 2014 was significant as the farm ranges from 1,100ft to 1,420ft above sea level. Davis’ herd size peaked at 580 cows, which has now settled at 480 cows where he is achieving similar herd production levels on 100 fewer cows.

Grass management is focused on soil fertility and reseeding to maximise production from grass.

They have an interesting division of labour on the farm – if it requires wellies then Nick does it; if the job requires shoes his wife, Frances, is responsible.

Important measures of success on the farm are time efficiency; facilities/infrastructure; and cow size/breeding with uniform cows required to match cow body weight and milk solids produced.

In 2019, cows averaged 475kg live weight and produced 472kg of milk solids per cow.

He concluded by highlighting the ‘Straight Face Test’ – can we justify everything we do with a straight face?

Closing session

The final session looked at the potential for dairy-bred beef, particularly the Blade Farming Scheme.

The panel comprised of Arthur Callaghan, ABP Calf Rearing Programme; John Egerton, a calf rearer from Rosslea in Co. Fermanagh; and Trevor Burns, a calf finisher from Ballyedmond Farms, Rostrevor, Co. Down.

Key benefits of this system include a sustainable outlet for dairy-bred calves, structured roles in the process and sustainability from beef and environmental aspects.

The topic generated good discussion with intense audience participation reflecting the relevance of this subject for dairy farmers and indeed the wider beef sector.

Throughout the day delegates, which included a number of students from CAFRE’s Greenmount Campus, were able to interact, through Slido, with questions for the speakers accessed online and this proved very successful.

The conference was closed by the presentation of gifts to all the speakers and a vote of thanks ably proposed by new UGS president-elect Harold Johnston.

Election of office-bearers at UGS AGM

The UGS’s 61st annual general meeting (AGM) took place prior to the conference, with President Jim Freeburn handing over the President’s Chain of Office to Charlie Kilpatrick from Hillsborough.

New president for 2020/2021 is Charlie Kilpatrick, an arable/beef farmer and independent farm advisor, specialising in farm management planning.

He studied agriculture at Queens University Belfast and Reading University before terms, working for Almarai in Saudi Arabia and then CAFRE.

The new president-elect is Harold Johnston – a dairy farmer from Ahoghill, where he farms in partnership with two sons.

The President’s Committee elected at the UGS AGM: (Front) Harold Johnston; Charlie Kilpatrick; and Jim Freeburn. (Back) John Henning; Neville Graham; and George Reid

Newly elected committee members were Dr. Francis Lively, AFBI; Cathal McAleer, Omagh; Robert McFarland, Dungannon; and Andrew Morrison, Yara, succeeding Ciaran Hamill; Campbell Hume; Harold Johnston; and Ryan McDowell, who were thanked for their contribution.

George Reid and John Henning were re-elected as secretary and PRO respectively, with the new society treasurer appointed being Neville Graham from Dale Farm.