A dedicated food marketing body to drive positive engagement was labelled a ‘matter of priority’ at the National Sheep Association’s Sheep Northern Ireland event. Richard Halleron reports.
Repercussions of a no-deal Brexit were not far from farmers’ minds at NSA Sheep NI, held at Ballymena mart last week, which prompted calls for a food marketing body for Northern Ireland from Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) president Ivor Ferguson.
Such a move would allow Northern Ireland to have a full-time presence in the world’s premier food markets, something it could not do at present.
He said: “There is a pressing need for an over-arching, food marketing body for Northern Ireland.
“Both New Zealand and Australia are enjoying record lamb prices at present.
“In part, this is because both countries have direct access to the Chinese and other Asian markets, but helping to drive this is the positive engagement of the countries’ respective food marketing bodies with customers in these export destinations.
“In Northern Ireland, we are not able to do this and it must be rectified as a matter of priority.”
Believing the sheep sector is the one that will be most exposed to a no-deal Brexit, Mr Ferguson continued: “The threat of this actually happening continues to grow. Sheep are doing relatively well when compared with beef at the present time, but the sector remains most exposed to the ravages of a hard Brexit.
“Half a million lambs are transported live, cross-border, to the Republic of Ireland on an annual basis.
“This trade would be put at risk in the event of a deal not being reached.”
When asked if veganism posed a real challenge to the livestock sectors, Mr Ferguson said: “Only two per cent of the UK’s population are purported to follow this way of life.
“Every consumer has freedom of choice and every farmer will uphold this right.
“However, the figures clearly show 98 per cent of consumers are happy with the meat they are eating.”
Ongoing research at University College Dublin (UCD) is pointing to the benefits of including a range of grasses, legumes and herbs in the leys grazed by breeding sheep and their lambs.
Dr Tommy Boland, one of the scientists involved in the SmartGrass project said: “Our work is showing such an approach can deliver real benefits in terms of overall dry matter yields, seasonality, persistency and lamb output.
“We know swards containing a mix of grass, legume and herb varieties can yield up to 20 tonnes/dry matter/ hectare without a requirement to spread nitrogen fertiliser.”
Mr Boland pointed out a combination of factors which would contribute to the yield potential of multi-species sward mixes.
“In the first instance, traditional grass varieties can piggy-back on the nitrogen fixing capabilities of legumes, such as red clover and the deep rooting growth profile of herbs, including plantain and chicory adds to the growth potential of these mixes,” he said.
“This helps break up the soil, but it also ensures that swards remain productive during dry spells, as was the case last summer across all of the UK and Ireland.”
The research at UCD has been developed to identify which is the best combination of species to include in specialised sheep swards, as well as to quantify the performance of ewes and lambs
on such pastures.
Mr Boland said initial SmartGrass results were suggesting significant lamb growth rate gains can be achieved by using multi species pastures, opposed to single variety perennial ryegrass swards.
But said more work was required to develop species of clover and a range of herbs which were more persistent under Irish conditions.
Even moderate levels of soil compaction can reduce grassland output levels by 20 per cent, according to Alex Higgins of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI).
Mr Higgins stressed the need for all grassland farmers to have their soils tested and analysed on a regular basis, to help form a bespoke fertiliser plan.
He added low pH values continued to be the biggest hindrance to grassland output on sheep and other livestock farms in Northern Ireland.
“We are running a lime deficit of some 1.2m tonnes,” he said.
“This reflects the sharp fall-off in lime application rates during the early years of the last decade. Lime remains the most cost-effective fertiliser on any grassland farm.”
According to a recent soil health survey carried out by AFBI, 44 per cent of fields tested had a pH value significantly below its optimal level. On sheep farms, this figure rose to 55 per cent.
In the sheepdog sale, top price was £1,450 was for a dog presented by N. McEldowney, Draperstown closely followed by a bitch from E. and P. MCormick, Cushendall at £1,200.
1. Ryan Adams, Coleraine
2. Alexander Boyd, Newtownabbey
3. Iain Wilson, Islandmagee
Best under 18: Matthew Robinson, Ballycarry
Best breed society stand
1. Scottish Blackface
2. Dorset Horn and Poll Dorset
3. TGM Software Solutions
1. Learn Agri