Statistical press release - Results of the December Agricultural Survey 2018

Date published: 28 February 2019

The results of the December 2018 Agricultural Survey have been released by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

DARD statistics

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 2017 and December 2018 are:

Dairy herd

Dairy cow numbers recorded in December 2018 marginally decreased from those in December 2017 to 309,000 cows. Dairy cow numbers peaked in December 2015 at 313,600 head and have remained relatively stable at this high level since then.

Beef herd

The number of beef cows in December 2018 was 245,100, a decrease of 5% compared with the previous year. This is the second reduction in December beef cow numbers in a row, with the long term trend in numbers being generally downward over the past 20 years.

All cattle

In total there were 1.582 million cattle in December 2018, which is a 3% decrease from the previous year. Changes in total cattle numbers follow the trend set by the breeding herd with total cows also decreasing by 3% from December 2017.


The number of breeding ewes in December 2018 decreased by 4% from December 2017, while the number of ewe lambs tupped decreased by 9%. The total breeding flock recorded in December 2018 stood at 886,000 head. Lambs present on farms in December 2018 decreased by 3% from December 2017. Overall, the total number of sheep recorded in December 2018 was 1.330 million, a 4% decline on December 2017. This brings to an end the recent series of increasing December sheep numbers which began in December 2013.


The pig breeding herd stood at 44,100 in December 2018, 7% lower than the previous year. Overall, the pig herd was 4% smaller than in December 2017 with 608,700 pigs recorded. The majority of the reduction in total pigs is a result of a decrease in the number of fattening pigs (down 3%). This decrease in numbers follows on from the decline recorded by the June annual inventory of pigs.

Hay and silage

The area of hay cut increased by 130% in 2018 to approximately 17,000 hectares with yields declining by 13% over the period. Overall production increased to 93,000 tonnes, double that of the 2017 production. The high level of change recorded for hay is a result of very favourable hay making conditions in 2018 combined with the low base figures recorded in 2017. Following on from the cold late spring, farmers made every opportunity to save fodder and replenish depleted stocks.

The production of silage increased by 4% from 2017 to 2018, reaching approximately 9.1 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 for silage in the season decreased by 2% in 2018 compared to 2017. A greater proportion of the land usually cut for silage will have been saved as hay, which will account for some of this reduction. Although below average temperatures at the start of the year delayed the start of the growing season, and areas experienced drought conditions in mid-summer, the grazing season was extended long into the autumn, giving good opportunities to produce multiple cuts of silage.

Winter crops

The area of cereal crops in the ground at 1 December 2018 was estimated at 17,800 hectares, a 40% increase compared with 2017 and returns to a similar total as planted in December 2015. The area sown to winter wheat and winter barley increased by 30% to 7,400 and 45% to 9,200 hectares respectively aided by the excellent weather and associated planting conditions in autumn 2018. The area of winter oats in December 2018 increased by 68% from 2017, to 1,100 hectares planted.

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, 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 4,100 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 other National Statistics on the Internet.
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  7. All media queries should be directed to the DAERA Press Office on 028 9052 4619 or via email. Out of office hours please contact the duty press officer on 028 9037 8110.

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