Dairy farmers in Northern Ireland have enjoyed a year of rising incomes, but other sectors are being left behind, according to provisional figures released by the department of agriculture in Belfast this week.

The report shows that total income from farming – measuring the return to farmers, partners, directors and spouses – rose by almost 5% to 185m in 2005.

This was the third rise in a row and contrasted with a 9% drop for the UK as a whole.

“The main reason is that the price of cereals has fallen, reducing income in the arable areas of GB, but decreasing the cost of feed inputs in Northern Ireland,” said a DARD statement.

Part of the aggregate improvement was also due to the switch to the new single farm payment, which netted the province around 227m – up 11m on the subsidies paid out to farmers under the old system in 2004.

There was also an overall decrease in input costs.

For example, the aggregate fertiliser bill was down by some 3m, reflecting lower use, while feed costs were down by 6m in 2005.

But the good results for Northern Ireland as a whole masked big differences in the fortunes of individual sectors.

While dairy farmers enjoyed a 27% rise in net farm income to an estimated 21,700, cattle and sheep farms, and mixed farms all suffered a decrease.

Lower sheep sales (-5%), lower potato sales (-33%) and lower barley sales (-23%) all contributed to the difficult income situation.

National Beef Association chairman John Carson said he was not surprised.

“Such income levels are unsustainable,” he said.

“When farmers see these numbers and realise their single farm payment comes to more than their farm profit, they will ask serious questions about what they’re doing in farming.”

philip.clarke@rbi.co.uk