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News > CAFRE supports Co. Down farmers to adopt innovation


CAFRE supports Co. Down farmers to adopt innovation

December 10, 2020

In 2018, the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) launched a new single advisory service aimed at supporting Northern Ireland’s farm and food businesses.  The primary role of the Knowledge Advisory Service was to enhance the development of farm and food businesses through knowledge transfer.  The long term goal was to ensure that productivity, environmental sustainability and resilience would be the primary focus.

The Business Development Group Scheme, delivered by CAFRE through KAS Advisers was launched in 2016 and has provided a training forum for around 3,000 farmers in 160 groups. The scheme uses a group training approach that allows sharing of knowledge with the aim of improving the technical efficiency and profitability of farm businesses.  Four years down the line and Dairying Development Adviser Judith McCord has delivered the scheme to 120 dairying enterprises which are members of Business Development Groups across counties Armagh and Down.

Food Provenance

Across the various areas where Judith has worked with dairy farmers she has witnessed the increasing interest by farmers and the public in on farm food sales.  Judith has supported and encouraged two Business Development Group members recently with the journey entering into their secondary farm based business ventures.

Stephen Gibson, Hollowbridge Farm

Hollowbridge Farm spans back six generations to 1805 and today Stephen farms alongside his dad Nevin.  “It takes a full family effort to run a farm, it doesn’t just start and stop with milking cows.  I like to see my kids out and enjoying the farm but we are always mindful of farm safety.”   Stephen currently milks 100 Holstein-Friesian dairy cows which are grazed from March to November. In 2016, Stephen joined the Business Development Group (BDG) scheme.  Stephen has found that being in this group has helped improve his knowledge and skills in the more technical and fundamental areas of dairying. Working alongside his CAFRE Dairy Adviser, Judith, has been extremely beneficial to his goal of achieving maximum milk from forage. Key to achieving this is routinely measuring grass quality and assessing grazing conditions.  Through working with Judith, Stephen has now mapped the farm with a grazing wedge and uses computer based software to manage intakes and grass covers. When selecting bulls Stephen aims for fertility, milk solids, good legs and feet more so than milk volume.  One key objective within Stephen’s development plan is to tighten up his calving by 2 months and increase conception rates at first service. Stephen has undertaken a level 2 in agriculture and now through the scheme is progressing further on the CAFRE Level 3 which is delivered through the BDGs using his farm as evidence of achievement. 

Stephen and Amanda are determined to future proof their farm business for the next generation of Gibson’s at Hollowbridge.

“Working alongside my CAFRE adviser Judith encouraged me to apply to the 2019 Technology Demonstration Farms (TDFs) under the title feed efficiency.  TDFs provide a network of local farms which provide other farmers with the opportunity to see new technology and innovations which they could adopt on their own farms.” 

With being in the BDG Stephen has found that he has now a clear development plan for his business and is able to make decisions based on the evidence and contacts from his adviser.  Stephen avails of the CAFRE benchmarking service and has used this to improve farm profitability so much so that he achieved the Ulster Champion in the Prevention for Profit competition- where he was judged on 4 fundamental areas of profitability (nutrition, animal health, genetics and management).

In 2018 Stephen and wife Amanda started an exciting new enterprise with the development of their own artisan ice cream made with the milk from their dairy herd.  The idea of making their own ice cream came about when Stephen and Amanda got an ice cream maker for the house and dabbled a bit with their own recipes!  “We were able to avail of the Innovation Voucher scheme with CAFRE, Food Technologists at Loughry Campus to upskill our business to the final stages.”  CAFRE were also able to advise us to approach Invest NI.  What makes our ice cream different is we know exactly what our cows are eating and pride ourselves on the creamiest milk produced from the finest forage.”    “It’s all completely natural and everything, right down to the adding of the flavours is done by hand.”   

Many delicious flavours of real dairy ice-cream are produced at Hollowbridge Farm

In moving forward Stephen has joined an environmental Business Development Group so that he can improve his environmental standards on farm.  It is something he has thought about and has always planted trees and maintained hedgerows, but Stephen is aware that there is a lot more to being environmentally active on farm.  He also looks forward to working out the carbon footprint of his farm and strategies for how to reduce the environmental impact of the farm.

Richard Lilburn, Brookvale Farm
Richard and Pamela Lilburn with their expert taste panel – children Theo, Harrison and Evie.

Richard more recently joined the BDG Scheme in 2019 and is an advocate for maximising technology on farm.  “Family life on our farm is key and we see a huge benefit to introducing technology on our farm – not only for the cows but for quality and ease of life.”  Richard, his wife Pamela, mum Olive and dad Thomas all work together on Brookvale farm just outside Dromore Co. Down.  Richard milks 200 Holstein cows through four Fullwood Merlin Robots and works with zero grazing in the grass growing months to maximize his grazing platform and pasture based intakes.  Richard Initially joined the BDG scheme to avail of up to date technology information and have access to his CAFRE adviser for assistance with development planning and benchmarking. However he learnt quickly that there were a lot more advantages to being a part of the BDG.  More recently Richard has used his CAFRE adviser for advice on the Farm Business Improvement Scheme grant, educational programs available to enhance his business and access to relevant contacts and support in setting up Brookvale’s latest business venture!  With COVID this year Richard would say he hasn’t had the full benefit of the BDG scheme due to limited on farm meetings.  However technology has been used to run online meetings both with the group and one to one with Judith.

After various visits to countries in which milk vending machines were well established Richard had the urge to bring the idea home to Northern Ireland.  The installation of their 4 Fullwood Robots however took precedence and so it was only at the beginning of 2020 that the Lilburn’s started to put pen to paper in planning the change.  Along the way things have been slightly problematic with COVID and the lockdown restrictions which followed. Although it has taken longer to get up and running than first thought, pioneering their second farm based business enterprise has cemented the positive working relationship between CAFRE adviser Judith and the Lilburn family.   The Lilburn family are extremely passionate to showcase the amazing produce that NI farms have to offer,  “ I  am a dairy farmer and people should be able to taste real milk ….not milk that is over-processed….milk that is JUST MILK – hence our name ‘It’s Just Milk”.

Cows at Brookvale are fed using a zero grazer during the growing season ensuring best use of grass swards further away from the farm yard.

It’s Just Milk is a vending machine allowing the public to buy delicious, gently pasteurised, fresh milk from the Lilburn’s own herd with the added option of 4 flavours of milkshake.  This venture not only brings the urban to the country but the Lilburn family are also conscious of reducing food miles and environmental impact. Lowering carbon emissions through reduced transportation, fuel usage and use of plastics. Their glass bottles will be reusable with 1ltr and 500ml sizes available. Brookvale farm pride themselves on giving their cow’s the best life through comfort, good feeding and looking after their health.  Their involvement with their adviser and being in a CAFRE Business Development Group has given them another string to their bow in terms of development and knowledge transfer.

The Business Development Group Scheme and Technology Demonstration Farms are part funded through the EU Rural Development Programme.