AFBI research helps to safeguard the future of the dairy industry

Date published: 14 January 2014

Area of Expertise:

Challenging times In the ‘Going-for Growth’ strategy, the Northern Ireland (NI) dairy industry is being encouraged to capitalise on the rapidly growing global demand for dairy products.

At the moment though, it is going through a very challenging period, as a result of difficult international market conditions. On top of this, milk producers have had to cope with restrictions imposed under the European Union Nitrates Directive. These restrictions, while well-intentioned and aimed at reducing water pollution, are often costly and difficult to implement, and are adding to pressures currently faced by dairy producers.

AFBI research – ‘holding the line’ for the industry

Under the terms of the Nitrates Directive, NI has a Nitrates Action Programme (NAP) which is reviewed every 4 years by the European Commission (EC). The aim of the review process is to evaluate the effectiveness of NAP regulations in minimising the risk of ‘agricultural’ nutrients entering ground and surface waters. Typically, unless strong evidence is presented to show that regulations are truly ‘fit-for-purpose’, more stringent measures are imposed by the EC.

For more than 10 years now, AFBI research has sought to provide the evidence to achieve a balance between agricultural and water quality targets in NI and to avert the imposition of measures that would be detrimental if not crippling to the farming industry without actually benefiting the environment – or indeed vice versa. For example, at the start of the NAP implementation process in 2005, research at Hillsborough established the true nitrogen (N) excretion rate of high-yielding dairy cows in NI (91 kg N/cow/yr), and prevented the imposition of a much higher level (>100 kg N/cow/yr), which would have significantly inflated organic N loadings on dairy farms and pushed many more farms into derogation.

In the run-up to the latest NAP review, the EC questioned the effectiveness of the closed period for slurry application in NI and indicated that they were considering extending it into March to reduce the risk of water pollution following slurry application. Such an extension would have had serious economic consequences for dairy enterprises already struggling under financial constraints. As in 2005, objective and impartial research by AFBI, helped to ‘save the day’ for the dairy industry. A survey of slurry spreading practice in NI was undertaken by AFBI which demonstrated that farmers in general adopt an environmentally responsible approach to slurry application, and only apply slurry when conditions are conducive for grass growth. Crucially, the survey indicated that only about 10% of slurry produced is applied in February (Fig 1). In other words farmers are not simply emptying storage tanks after the 31st January. As a result of this independent study, the EC agreed that the closed period for slurry spreading could remain unchanged in the new 2015-2019 NAP regulations. Good news for the dairy industry!

AFBI research - delivering improvements to existing regulations

One of the biggest challenges facing DARD is to convince the EC of the need to make changes to existing (and sometimes unnecessarily stringent) regulations for the sake of the farming industry. Here, AFBI research has played a crucial role in the recent NAP review process, by providing the EC with evidence to show that regulations relating to phosphorus (P) use need to be revised to prevent P deficiency from undermining grass-based production. 

Over the past 40 years, P inputs to grassland have often exceeded sward requirement and as a result P deficiency has ceased to be the threat that it was in the pre and post-war era. In the last 10 years, though, with the dramatic decline in fertiliser P usage on grassland, there is once again a risk that P deficiency could become a problem, unless care is taken that swards receive adequate supplies of P as fertiliser and manure. Farmers have been particularly concerned that P recommendations for grassland in the lower half of the P index 2 range (10-15 mg P/l) may be insufficient and causing an undersupply of P and resulting in sward under-performance. Strategic research conducted by AFBI confirmed that this was indeed the case. Accordingly, in the new NAP and Phosphorus Regulations, just approved by the European Council in December 2014, the P index 2 range for grassland soils has been split into a 2(minus)  (16-20 mg P/l) and a 2 (plus) category (21-25 mg P/l), and higher P recommendations have been assigned to grassland in the index 2 (minus)- (P-building) category to prevent P deficiency occurring during the growing season (Table 1).

 When the Phosphorus Regulations were first introduced in NI in 2006, the EC insisted that the availability of P in organic manures should be artificially fixed at 100% - i.e. double what it really is! Because farmers in NI can only apply fertilizer P to land to make up a crop requirement unmet by organic manures, and because they have to assume that manure P is 100% available, they may not in fact be able to apply sufficient P to meet crop requirements on land of low P status (i.e. P index 0 and 1). Based on AFBI research, a strong case was therefore made to the EC that slurry P availability should be set at 50% for soils at P index 0 and 1. This case was accepted! Farmers can now apply fertiliser and manure P to fully meet crop requirements on low P soils, and what’s more, have better opportunity now to redistribute manure away from high P soils and onto P impoverished land. Good news for the dairy industry and the environment!

AFBI research – essential for the future of the dairy sector

In anticipation of future challenges to the NI NAP by the EC, AFBI is proposing to research ways of sustainably reducing P concentrations in high P (Index 3-4) soils without negatively impacting on stocking rates and hence farm profitability. AFBI have also indicated the urgent need for new research to enable NI to comply with the monitoring and reporting requirements of the new Derogation, i.e. as of June 2016. With public finances currently under severe constraints it is uncertain though if any of this new research will be funded. But unless it is, the future of the dairy sector could be jeopardised!


AFBI research has provided essential evidence to ensure that regulations within the European Nitrates Directive take full account of local farming conditions.  This has resulted in a more accurate estimate of nitrate excretion in manure and a shorter closed period for manure spreading that would otherwise have been the case.  However, further challenges will arise from Europe in the future, and it is imperative that we continue to undertake research to protect the industry, based on measurement of what actually happens on local farms.

Notes to editors: 

AFBI carries out high quality technology research and development, statutory, analytical, and diagnostic testing functions for DARD and other Government departments, public bodies and commercial companies.


AFBI's Vision is “Scientific excellence in Northern Ireland …  serving the world”.

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