Bale theft: ‘Tractors come in and no one passes any remarks’

The issue of bales of fodder being stolen is becoming a growing concern in recent times, particularly for tillage farmers making straw, as farmers struggle to conserve enough forage for winter.

Speaking on the issue on RTE Radio 1’s Today with Miriam O’Callaghan were Tom Stephenson, a drystock and tillage farmer and Wicklow chair of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA), and Liam Dunne, a tillage farmer and former Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) Grain Committee chair.

Stephenson highlighted how he had to step up his security due to fears of having his bales stolen – something he previously experienced.

He explained: “I had some extra security in because of the sheer demand for bales and people coming in and taking them out of the field.

You see – in the tillage industry – lorries come in, tractors come in, no one passes any remarks on them coming in because it’s a common occurrence at this time of the year.

“But, since this fodder crisis has come in, we have to take additional measures by putting old slurry tankers and trailers in the gateways that block the traffic coming in – to make sure that our customers get supplied with the straw that they have ordered maybe six months ago.”

The Wicklow-based farmer recounted how he himself was a victim of theft in recent times: “My bales were stolen last winter; they were silage bales in a field, and they came in and disappeared overnight.

“There wasn’t that many – there were only 13 – but there’s places this year along here now; there’s 100-130 bales of hay stolen not too far away from me, and even closer to me there were 30 bales of hay stolen one night out of a field.”

Stephenson added that most farmers have no security for their bales, noting:

They’ve their premises secure alright, but they haven’t got their rented land or their tillage ground or their hay ground secured because the gates are just wide open.

“Locals to a field are not going to be surprised because there’s constantly tractors and trucks moving in and out of fields, so people have to be a bit more vigilant; and at a time when we’re working long hours, it’s difficult to reach upon another problem as well.

‘Farmers can’t afford to lose anything’

Dunne highlighted the severity of the past year on harvest returns, saying: “While it’s been a serious struggle over the last five years on tillage farms, this year, because of the drought, crops are back about 40%; in some cases a bit more even, and in luckier parts of the country perhaps a bit less.

Nationally we would produce in normal years a little over two million tonnes of grain. Teagasc expects this year’s tonnage is going to be down around 1.7 million tonnes, which is a serious drop in production.

“It means that income on tillage farms is under severe strain and farmers can’t afford to lose anything, much less start to lose bales of straw out of fields – that would not go down well with many people.

“It is a major issue, and there isn’t very much that farmers can do to secure their fields; closing a gate or even putting a lock on it really doesn’t mean a whole lot if someone is determined to steal something.

“The problem is that your fields are open and bales have become quite valuable, and somebody could find themselves with €1,000 worth of fodder on a trailer in a very short space of time, and very often tillage land isn’t always close to the house.

“It can sometimes be quite a distance away and you have no way of securing it. Trying to get the work done is the priority with most people at this time of the year and security is much farther down the line.

Harvesting is priority number one and getting the straw baled is priority number two, but it is certainly on people’s minds – there’s no doubt about that.

“I’ve been talking to quite a few farmers and it has crossed their minds; now there are no reports of anything such as thefts in this particular area, but that doesn’t mean that farmers aren’t concerned and worried about it,” Dunne said.