Statistical press release - Results of the December Agricultural Survey 2017

Date published: 22 February 2018

The results of the December 2017 Agricultural Survey have been released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

DARD report

This survey provides estimates of the numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs on farms at the beginning of December. In addition, it provides information on levels of hay and silage production and sowings of winter cereals.

Cattle data (except heifer estimates) are extracted from APHIS, the identification, registration and movement database for cattle in Northern Ireland. Sheep data are obtained from the Annual Sheep and Goat Inventory. Pig numbers and all the crop areas are derived from a sample survey of farmers.

The main changes between December 2016 and December 2017 are:

Dairy herd

The dairy herd stood at 312,500 cows in December 2017 which was marginally up on dairy cow numbers recorded in December 2016 but little different from the total herd size in 2015. Milk production in 2017 was 4% higher than 2016 reaching a record volume of 2.284 billion litres.

Beef herd

The number of beef cows in December 2017 was 258,400 a decrease of 2% compared with the previous year. Beef cow numbers were in keeping with year-end values observed since support payments were decoupled in 2005. Over the last 12 years numbers have tended to vary within a relatively narrow range of between 250,000 and 275,000 cows.

All cattle

In total there were 1.623 million cattle in December 2017 which is little changed from the previous year. Changes in total cattle numbers follow the trend set by the breeding herd. Stocks of winter forage and short term price movements can also impact the timing of sales and therefore the total number of cattle present on farms during December.


The number of breeding ewes in December 2017 increased by 3% from the previous year but the number of ewe lambs tupped decreased by 7%. The total breeding flock recorded in December stood at 927,700, a level not exceeded since December 2005. Lambs present on farms in December decreased by 1% from 2016, when the number of lambs was at a seven year high. As in 2016, poor weather conditions, particularly in the west of the province hampered the finishing of lambs and thereby contributed to the high numbers present in December. Overall, the total number of sheep recorded in December 2017 was 1.381 million which is the highest level recorded since December 2004.


The pig breeding herd stood at 47,400 in December 2017, 8% higher than the previous year. Overall, the pig herd was 18% bigger than in December 2016 with 631,100 pigs recorded. This was mainly a result of growth in the number of fattening pigs (up 19%), including pigs imported to Northern Ireland for finishing. These increased numbers reflect the growth seen in June at the time of the annual inventory of pigs. Total pig numbers in December were at the highest year-end level observed since 1985.

Hay and silage

The area of hay saved decreased by almost two-fifths in 2017 to approximately 7,000 hectares, the lowest level ever recorded, with yields also tumbling to a 15 year low. As a consequence overall production was down to 46,000 tonnes, some 43% lower than in 2016 (a year when hay production was lower than usual).

The production of silage in 2017 recovered slightly on 2016 levels (a year when production was lower than average) to reach approximately 8.8 million tonnes. The methodology for the December Survey records the area of land on which silage was harvested at least once, irrespective of the number of cuts subsequently made. On this basis, the area cut at least once in the season increased by 4% in 2017 compared to 2016. However, poor weather conditions hampered second and third cut silage making and this was reflected in a drop in average yields for 2017 to 29.5 tonnes per hectare, the lowest yield recorded in 12 years.

Winter crops

The area of cereal crops in the ground at 1 December 2017 was estimated at 12,700 hectares, a 20% decrease compared with 2016. The area sown to winter wheat and winter barley decreased by 22% to 5,700 and 10% to 6,400 hectares respectively. The area of winter oats in December 2017 halved to just 700 hectares planted. Poor weather conditions in during autumn 2017 hampered sowing.

Tables giving full details of the December Survey results are available on the Statistical bulletins page.


Notes to editors: 

  1. The survey results were prepared by Statistics and Analytical Services Branch, CAP Policy, Economics and Statistics Division of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Dundonald House, Upper Newtownards Road, Belfast, BT4 3SB.
  2. These statistics are released according to the Statement of Compliance with the Pre-release access to Official Statistics Order (NI) 2009.
  3. These results were compiled from a sample of approximately 3,900 statistical returns, the APHIS cattle tracing system and Annual Sheep and Goat Inventory returns.
  4. All recent DAERA statistical press releases can be found on the Statistical bulletins page.
  5. National Statistics are produced to high professional standards set out in the National Statistics Code of Practice. They undergo regular quality assurance reviews to ensure that they meet customer needs. They are produced free from any political interference. You can also find National Statistics on the Internet.
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