Farmers and fodder at the mercy of nature
- 15 May 2013
- From the section Northern Ireland
After a long, cold winter and a late spring, it has been a tough time for farmers.
Those making a living from the land find themselves at the centre of a "perfect storm".
A year and a half of wet weather has reduced both the quantity and quality of animal feed. It was, for farmers, a hard winter. They needed an early spring; they got the opposite.
Now, those limited supplies are running out; the ground is still saturated meaning cattle cannot be put out to graze and land that was used late in the season last year has not had a chance to recover.
This year's silage crop, meanwhile, is far behind where it should be, with no-one expecting any grass to be cut for weeks.
As silos run dry, there is no choice but to buy in extra feed; extra feed that is, naturally, in short supply and is, not quite so naturally, spiralling ever upwards in price.
Bulk silage that was £27 a tonne last year, could fetch anywhere from £50 to £70. Bales, too, have more than doubled from about £17 to £35.
Ian Marshall is a dairy farmer in County Armagh. He is also the deputy president of the Ulster Farmers' Union.
His silos, that should still be more than a third full at this time of year, are just about empty.
He explained: "What we need is some cover over the summer months until we get more forage harvested.
"Unfortunately, we don't have that; we've eaten into that stock and now supplies are seriously depleted."
And Ian is far from alone in this.
"In fact, I'm in the fortunate position that I have feed which has covered me through until the middle of May," he said.
"There are a lot of farmers who have already been buying feed for a long time. Margins are seriously tight across all sectors at the moment.
"There's just no surplus of cash on farms, cash is a problem and to go out and purchase all this feed, over and above what your normally require, is a problem for a lot of businesses."
The situation is not help by the generally difficult financial climate.
"When farmers go back to banks to ask for more cover to purchase feed, it certainly leads to difficult conversations," Ian added.
Indeed, some farmers are finding the strain difficult to bear.
A former gate lodge, just inside the grounds of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise at Loughry, is home to the charity Rural Support.
It exists, as its name suggests, to support the farming community and it has never been busier.
Melissa Wylie from the charity said that last month the number of calls to their helpline had tripled.
"A lot of those calls were actually financial worries, farming debt, delays in the single farm payment, inheritance issues. So farmers are finding it very difficult," Ms Wylie said.
She said some callers have been questioning whether or not they can remain in farming at all.
"I suppose it's hard to grasp that it is such a lonely job; long hours by yourself, doing such hard work and manual labour and a lot of it is lonely time and thinking time," she said.
"A lot of townies tend to think that it's farmers griping about nothing, but it definitely is a difficult time.
"The people who are ringing our helpline are very much in need of support, whether that be practical support or emotional support from our counsellors."
Ian Marshall feels a co-ordinated approach involving all the various agencies is required if a way through this crisis is to be found.
"None of us, unfortunately, can govern what happens with our weather," he said.
"However, when we look south of the border, the IFA and the Irish government have certainly looked at sourcing forage further afield, France for example, and bringing that into the republic.
"And there are a number of schemes operating in England where they're trying to more forage and fodder around the countryside to areas that are in need.
"I think the general public don't realise how serious this is at the moment. They look out, they see lovely green fields and it's May, therefore things should be okay.
"But actually things are pretty serious out on the farm at the moment."