2014-05-27   facebook twitter rss

Research and Knowledge Transfer - What do Dairy Farmers Want?

AgriSearch would like to thank all those dairy farmers who recently responded when asked “What do you want?” as regards scientific research to address current problems and knowledge gaps facing the Northern Ireland dairy industry.

As well as seeking farmer opinions, an earlier phase of this project had consulted with representatives across the dairy industry. The research team felt it vitally important to make use of the knowledge and expertise of producers, providing them the opportunity to voice their opinions regarding future research to address the main challenges facing the industry.

Research into cow fertility has the highest priority with Ulster milk producers and green issues the lowest.

Research into cow fertility has the highest priority with Ulster milk producers and green issues the lowest.

A confidential questionnaire, developed by Dr Gareth Arnott, an AgriSearch funded research fellow based within the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University, was distributed to farmers by all the major NI milk buyers. The questionnaire was designed to identify and quantify current and future research priorities for the Northern Ireland dairy sector. Furthermore, the opportunity was also taken to gauge opinions on how best to communicate research findings to the farming community, this being of vital importance, yet remaining a significant challenge.

The survey content was developed following structured interviews with the main Northern Ireland dairy industry representatives. This led to a comprehensive list of potential research topics that were subsequently put to farmers in a questionnaire, and intended to cover all the main areas of interest.

Topics were scored on a 5 point scale, from 1 = very unimportant to 5 = very important. In general, farmers’ rated the majority of research topics as important, with most receiving scores greater than 4. More specifically, opinions were first gauged on the importance of a number of broad research topics and this revealed fertility to be the highest priority research topic, followed closely by animal health and welfare, and then feed efficiency / nutrition.


It will come as no great surprise that within the fertility topic the specific areas identified as being of highest research priority were; health and fertility, nutrition and fertility, and heat detection.

Within the animal health and welfare topic, calf health was scored as the highest priority research area, followed by mastitis, and then infectious disease, longevity, and lameness, with these latter 3 all having similar scores. These areas all represent on-going production challenges and again it is unsurprising that they have been highlighted by this survey.

Within the feed efficiency / nutrition topic, forage quality and the closely related area of forage intakes / grass utilisation emerged as the highest priority research areas, followed by efficient concentrate use. Again, all are highly relevant research priorities, interacting with many important aspects of the farm business, particularly in terms of profitable milk production.

As a horizon scanning exercise farmers were also asked to give their opinions on what would be the most important research topics in 5-10 years’ time. Once again, fertility emerged as the highest priority research area for the future. This highlights just how challenging and problematic this area is viewed, and that a considerable research effort both now and in the future is viewed by farmers as being necessary to address it. Other notable high scoring future research topics included; animal health, animal welfare, cow longevity, feed efficiency, lameness, medicine use / problems of resistance, milk quality, and grassland productivity.

Within this survey it is also appropriate to ask “what were the lowest scoring research priorities?” The topic of “environmental impact / sustainability” received the lowest score, with the following areas identified as being of low research priority; greenhouse gases, ammonia emissions, nitrogen balance, phosphorus balance, and sustainable intensification.

The lower research priority that farmers gave these topics is certainly at odds with agricultural policy makers and these results highlight the need to convince farmers of the benefits of research in these areas. This will likely be most effectively achieved when framed within the context of on-farm productivity and profitability, which in the future is going to increasingly encompass environmental parameters.

Farmers were also asked to give their opinions regarding the most effective ways to communicate research findings. This is an important and challenging area and this was reflected in the results. Overall, the options offered had lower scores on a 5 point scale than for the questions gauging opinions on research topics. Also, there was little difference between the scores for the topics offered.


However, of the methods examined, farm walks / demonstrations received the highest (most favoured) score, followed closely by the farming press, with a range of other methods receiving similar scores; e.g. farmer discussion groups, farmer friendly literature, meetings / presentations, open days, and use of advisers (including vets). The clear take home message regarding knowledge transfer is there is no one size fits all approach and a number of methods should be adopted as individuals have different preferences in how they acquire new information.


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