Hundreds of farmers leave industry as pressures mount in Northern Ireland
Around 600 full and part-time farmers have left the agriculture industry in Northern Ireland over the past year, it has emerged.
According to the latest census figures from June 2016 and just released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, the total number of farmers has dropped to 29,500 - a fall of 2%.
The figures also suggest that despite the milk crisis in Northern Ireland, the number of dairy cows in the country is at its highest ever - 317,100, an increase of 2% from June 2015.
The statistics show that total cattle numbers were 3% higher in the same period.
The number of beef cows increased by 4% to 269,700.
The total number of workers in agriculture dropped 1% - down to 47,400.
Within this, the number of full-time and part-time farmers decreased by 2% to 29,500.
Charlie Weir, the chairman of Fair Price Farming NI, said that the numbers leaving the industry could increase even more next year.
"When finances became tight recently, farmers were paying off farm workers and some, themselves, indeed did quit farming," he said.
"Numbers could be reduced even more when this year is recorded in next June's census.
"It's no surprise that the number of dairy cows has increased. Two or three years ago when prices were good, dairy farmers brought in more heifers and these have been added to the overall dairy herd when they calved.
"Now when prices are poor, farmers are holding on to older cows they would normally have culled just to try and keep cash flow up by producing more milk.
"This trend has been mirrored across Europe, but it has added to the over-supply problem.
"Farmers need to take advantage of the voluntary supply incentive that was announced by EU farm commissioner Phil Hogan to ensure supply and demand level themselves out soon. There has of course been a number of new entrants coming into the dairy sector changing over from beef farming, so this also could have increased the dairy cow numbers."
In terms of sheep numbers, the total number recorded overall surpassed two million - a level not seen since 2007. There was a 1% rise in the number of breeding ewes compared with 2015.
Numbers have fluctuated in recent years, falling to a 20-year low of 876,000 in 2010, before increasing to 950,100 this year, which is the highest level recorded since 2007.