Business Showcase with Ulster Bank: The technology helping improve efficiencies in our farming sector

While the strides many of our leading companies are taking in moving to greener energy and automation tends to make the headlines, it’s not just the big firms making those key steps.

all Donnell is a third generation farmer running his business just outside Strabane in Co Tyrone, alongside his parents.

And he’s invested significant time and money introducing technology such as solar and a robotic milking parlour, alongside its banking partner Ulster Bank, in a bid to lower costs, improve efficiencies and go greener.

He has a herd of 110 dairy cows across 200 acres and says the move to solar power in 2013 has led to significant cost savings for the farm.

“(I thought) if we could utilise electricity throughout the day with the robot, we would make a better use out of the power we are generating from the solar panel roof,” he said.

“We put in solar in 2013 and we are currently using around 99% of what we are creating.”

Hall says with Renewables Obligation Certificates (ROCs) the use of solar can bring its electricity costs down to £1,000 a year.

“We are in the process of getting more solar onto the roof, along with around 30KW of battery storage,” he says.

Hall says the farm is now generating around 60% of its electricity needs using its solar array. “I would like to bring that as close to 90-95% as I can.

“We also changed all of our lighting to LEDs, and photocell timeclocks – as soon there’s daylight all of the lights go off.”

He says cutting one of its biggest overheads – electricity – first sparked the idea and interest in investing in bid to go greener, and reduce costs.

“It was a big expense at the start, but you are getting a good chunk back every year,” he says. He then turned his attention to a robotic milking parlour.

“The cows were at a stage where they needed a third milking during the day. Labour was also a big thing for us and it’s just a family-run farm.”

Hall said due to the improved efficiencies, the farm was able to essentially pay off the initial cost of the robotic milking machine within around two years. “The bank helped us to get things up-and-running,” Hall says.

“Robotics are getting more and more popular every year because the labour just isn’t there to help out nowadays,” he says. “You still need to be there and monitor the cows.”

Hall says while there are some positive movements with rising milk prices, in terms of the challenges, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to get goods such as artificial fertiliser, while power costs continue to rise.

“Electricity costs are (rising). We had a letter in from our electricity company saying prices are rising to 25p per KW. Before the pandemic that was sitting at 16KW. It doesn’t sound much but when you are using a lot of electricity it’s a big bill.” 

A welcome return for full-scale Balmoral Show

By Cormac McKervey, senior agricultural manager, Ulster Bank

There is much excitement in the air about the return to a full-scale Balmoral Show with Ulster Bank. Thankfully most restrictions have been lifted and while the reduced event in September 2021 was a success, it feels extra special that this year’s event will be much closer to the Balmoral Show we all know and love.

This will be Ulster Bank’s 13th show as principal sponsor and while 13 may be an unlucky for some, everyone at Ulster Bank feels honoured to be a proud partner of what is now a truly world-class event.

At its heart, the Balmoral Show is a celebration of our local agriculture sector which, thanks to the talented growers and producers working in this industry, has put Northern Ireland on the map and cemented its reputation as a leading food destination on the world stage.

The reality is, however, that some in the industry may not feel like celebrating this year. Farmers in Northern Ireland are operating through very challenging times with input costs rising at an almost unprecedented scales and margins for their produce remaining static.

Conflict in Ukraine, disruption to supply chains, and Brexit implications are just some of the issues weighing heavy on the sector and while profitability has yet to dip, certain sub-sectors of the industry are being exposed to greater risks.

Throughout the four days of the Balmoral Show, our message to farmers is that we understand your concerns and we are ready to offer you support, both through the funds we have available to lend and through the expertise of our teams. We are also encouraging farmers to try and look for new opportunities, in particular when it comes to transitioning to cleaner business practices.

Given the very real problems associated with climate change it is crucial that farmers are considered as part of the solution to tackling this issue. We want to work in partnership with the sector in this area and can provide the tools and expertise agri-businesses need to fulfil their green ambitions.

We have recently launched two new green propositions including green loans and green asset finance options and all of our business managers now undergo specialist climate training. Hall Donnell and his family are a great example of what can be done when the right support is put in place, and it is encouraging to hear that his experience of switching to renewable energy sources has been a positive one.

The Balmoral Show remains the standout event in the local agri-food calendar and for good reason. It is a chance to come together as a sector, bring ideas to market and tap into the strong sense of pride that unites us all. Whether you are there for the livestock competitions, exhibiting your produce or simply taking the opportunity to catch up with old friends, I wish you an enjoyable visit to the Show and look forward to welcoming you throughout the four days of the event.

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