Grain and feed market volatility looks set to continue over the coming months as pressure persists on global supply chains, according to Gill Gallagher, CEO of the Northern Ireland Grain Trade Association (NIGTA).

She confirmed that feed prices have remained firm over the last 12 months, driven by steady demand and tight supplies.

Looking ahead, the weather will largely dictate how this situation progresses into the new year and beyond.

Weather impact on grain and feed

A complex weather phenomenon known as La Nina, which occurs every few years, is currently underway, and is impacting growing conditions in the southern hemisphere. 

Gallagher explained: “As an industry which produces close to three million tonnes of compound feed annually, we are reliant on a global supply chain and vulnerable to many factors beyond our control, most notably weather, which is a key watch point right now. 

“La Nina is continuing to build and is likely to peak in mid-January, which means it could last into April.

“It has caused drier than normal conditions in key regions in South America, where the soya harvest is due to get underway in the next few weeks, followed immediately by planting of the second maize crop. 

“If dry conditions persist, this could negatively affect the establishment and potential of that maize crop – with the potential to bring further pressure on soya and maize markets,” she added.

Transport of grain and feed

Meanwhile, the dry conditions are also affecting transport from Argentina.

Gallagher continued: “The Argentinian port situation is still acute, driven by low water levels, which have plagued the region for months. This has hampered the loading capacity of vessels leading to a reduction in the volume of cargo loaded and adding to an already challenging logistical situation and spiralling freight costs.

“Argentina is the main supplier of soya hulls to the UK and Europe, so the fibre market has really borne the brunt of this.”

Freight has made the headlines throughout this year, with supply challenges and unprecedented prices being reported as a result of the post-lockdown flurry of economic activity, which caused untold supply chain disruptions worldwide.

“Thankfully, some of the pressure on bulk vessels has eased in certain parts of the globe. However, smaller vessels remain expensive and difficult to procure. This is having a pronounced impact on grain markets for barley and wheat in particular,” said Gallagher.

“It would be remiss not to mention the other f-word – fertiliser.

“Availability anxiety due to production curtailment on the back of sky-rocketing energy prices, has led to surging fertiliser prices and driven farmers to consider alternative methods to ensure crop requirements can be met efficiently and cost-effectively, such as more targeted use of organic manures,” she added.

Impact on currency markets

Lingering in the background of all of this is the Covid-19 pandemic and its direct impact on currency markets. 

“The new Omicron variant has added to the nervousness in the market with fears over further lockdowns, resulting in another downturn in economic activity,” Gallagher continued.

When asked about the impact of the Northern Ireland Protocol, Gallagher replied:

“It is by no means perfect, but amongst other things, it does leave the European market open to exports from Northern Ireland in a way not available to any other part of the UK. We must therefore continue efforts to safeguard and improve it where possible. 

“Foresight is also needed to futureproof the protocol and ensure Northern Ireland does not face a competitive disadvantage compared to our neighbours in the south and to the east. 

“For that reason, NIGTA, through the Northern Ireland Brexit Business Working Group, is asking both the UK government and the EU to improve access to quota for cereal imports for Northern Ireland businesses.”

She said that this would act as an insurance policy against those rare occasions were origins subject to quota become the cheapest origin into Northern Ireland.

Avian influenza

According to Gallagher, careful management is also needed with immediate effect in relation to the poultry industry, which has suffered from avian influenza (AI – bird flu) outbreaks over the past three weeks. 

From a feed industry standpoint, Gallagher commented: “The AI season can be expected to last until the end of March so extra vigilance is needed now to keep the situation under control. 

“This is a highly infectious disease and it only takes a miniscule amount of infected material to be transferred via clothing, water or vermin to cause a devastating impact on the poultry industry.

“NIGTA has disseminated biosecurity guidance in relation to essential visits and deliveries to poultry farms. This is also available on the NIGTA website and I would strongly encourage everyone to familiarise themselves with the guidance and to act now to stop the spread,” she said.