McCormack on 2018: ‘I’ve never seen such fatigue at farm level’

ICMSA president Pat McCormack described the extreme weather events of 2018 and the resulting fodder shortages they caused as “unprecedented”, highlighting that such hardship has taken its toll on farmers across the country.

Speaking in an interview to AgriLand, the president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association (ICMSA) said that the issues were hitting farmers hard financially.

“I would say some farmers may not have only in or around 50% of their fodder in.

“We had public meetings a number of weeks ago where we had financial advisors and nutritionists, and farmers were extremely concerned – and are concerned.

It’s gone beyond the farmer now; because a lot of the time the farmer will try to absorb the burden of whatever is happening outside on the farm him or herself.

“But it’s very obvious now when you see farm families, the husband and wife coming to those public meetings, concerned about where they’re going; it’s a clear indication that this fodder crisis has become a financial crisis.

‘Financial crisis’

“There’s a lot of money owed there to co-ops and indeed to feed merchants and, over the next number of weeks, those suppliers will be hoping to take that financial liability off their books – and farmers need to have a low-interest loan scheme made available to them at this point in time, and the financial institutions I suppose are working towards it.”

While McCormack welcomed Bank of Ireland’s announcement yesterday of a €100 million fodder crisis fund and agri flex loan scheme, he added that such schemes need to be competitive.

On banks in general, he said: “Financial institutions cannot use it as an opportunity to reorganise a person’s finance and hike interest rates and increase interest rates. That’s certainly not in the interest of fair play because we are in a national crisis.”

Winter concerns

Turning to his main concerns for the coming winter, the ICMSA president said: “We welcome the €4.25 million which is going to create about 80,000t of fodder coming in – but it’s going to be nowhere near sufficient for farmers in the southern half of the country.

“That’s a critical difference between the crisis that we face now in the winter of 2018 and spring 2019 versus the 2017/18 crisis; the deficit in fodder is in the southern and southeastern half of the country, where there is significant numbers of stock, so it’s going to be more pronounced.

“We would say that the minister and his department should have been more proactive in securing fodder early because Europe has a deficit,” McCormack contended.

“I happened to be in the UK two weeks ago with Ornua, visiting their plants and it was very, very obvious as we went around the countryside, that they were in the middle of a drought as well. They’re our nearest neighbour for importation.”

The president noted that a number of co-ops are actively sourcing forage at present.

Obviously we’re disappointed that straw isn’t part of the scheme for the importation of fodder because, with the deficit that’s out there, it is one roughage that could be utilised to keep the ruminant’s stomach in tune.

The president said that autumn weather would have a significant impact on fodder, adding that a lot of silage was used during the autumn of 2017. If things turn out to be a repeat of last year, he said he believes Minister Creed and his department will have to look at an incentive for the early slaughter of cows to get stock numbers down.

“Hopefully that won’t be necessary, but it’s something that needs to be out there,” he said.

Factories

“We need to see competition come into the ringside in the form of exporters to purchase cattle – because there’s a feeling there among farmers that the beef industry and the beef manufacturing industry has become a bit of a monopoly and they’re filling sheds with stock at this point in time.

“They’re putting pressure on price, as we saw, they dropped 5c/kg – with talks of another 5c/kg next week.

“That’s going to undermine the store trade, and it’s at a time when there’s a feeling out there among farmers that those meat processors are filling sheds with cattle – cattle to be killed after Christmas; at a time when farmers would hope to see a lift in the trade in order to get back some of the costs that they would have put into those livestock.“

Discussing the Government and state response to the fodder shortage, including the relaxation of regulations on GLAS land, McCormack said it was welcome, but late.

“It’s very late in the day that it was announced; obviously we’d welcome any opportunity to salvage additional forage within the country,” he said.

“It’s going to be the cheapest fodder that’s out there for usage, but it’s an awful pity that wasn’t relaxed five or six weeks ago when we looked for it, and maybe a little dash of fertiliser put on it so that you’d have a meaningful crop.

I think it was a lost opportunity but nonetheless it’s welcome – but will only be a fraction of what it had the potential to be.

On the matter of expansion in Irish dairy farming, the ICMSA president highlighted the need for balance.

Expansion

He explained: “I was chairman of our dairy committee on April 1, 2015, when quotas were abolished, and we would have always said that farmers needed to expand with a degree of caution, not to leave themselves financially vulnerable.”

The president highlighted that, while some farmers may not be financially vulnerable, they would be very vulnerable at peak times from a labour requirement point of view.

“The burn-out and the fatigue that’s out there on farm at the minute for the time of year is unprecedented because they’ve had a difficult spring with increased workload, and that has followed through silage making and straight into winter feeding levels again.

I’ve never seen such fatigue out there at farm level.

“Food Harvest 2020 would be certainly very much achieved in 2018 and I think it might be achieved anyway irrespective of the weather. But Food Wise 2025 is the challenge that’s there ahead of us.

“It’s achievable, there’s no doubt about that, but farmers need to be very careful about the buy-in to that. You could be a ‘busy fool’.

“We need a return from the market place that rewards our labours – because a 39-hour week is no good to your average dairy farmer with 60 or 80 cows.

As some quarters would say an individual should be able to manage 150 cows; a 39-hour week would put in a very poor show there so there needs to be a reward there – it needs to be financially viable.

“Farmers need to be very careful that they don’t leave themselves vulnerable, either with high borrowings, or indeed a high level of work – because we’re only passing through this life once and I hear farmers saying it now more than ever, that lifestyle is becoming a particular issue.

“Whether the option of expansion is there for that individual; (a) have they the land black?; and (b) are they willing to put in the hours? Do they see the reward? Is it a lifestyle they want? And these questions are being asked now.”

Fatigue

McCormack highlighted isolation, noting that even giving a little advice can go a long way.

“There’s mental fatigue and the sense of isolation where farmers find themselves working on their own with no one to talk to, and I would encourage those farmers to get out there and seek help. Whether it’s help quantifying what stock they have, or help in the form of needing to talk to someone about the difficult situation they’re in.

“Maybe it’s a family member, maybe it’s a neighbour, maybe it’s a friend that could give them sound advice. Very, very often it might be just to sell the eight or 10 cows that are lame, or have recurring mastitis or whatever else the case may be – animal health issues, and move them off and make life easier to stretch what fodder is there.”

Exports

Coming back to exports, McCormack said: “We need to be in a position to get cattle off this island nation, in particular a year like this year where fodder is scarce, we need to be maximising what cattle go.

“I know we’ve well over 100,000 calves went but we’d like to see weanlings move now and certainly Irish cattle are well got in any of the countries which have received them.

“I think we need to explore all options, given where markets are at the minute. Your White Head heifer calf that, at three weeks of age, would have made €250 is now coming in, that same animal nine months later and making the same price.

“We’re only up 380,000 extra animals in 25 years; I suppose the big change is, if you go back even as far as 1983, there was probably 60,000 dairy farmers in the country; that was very much consolidated down to 18,000 or there around.”

McCormack noted that, with more cows on a smaller amount of land, some farmers may have gone too intensive, while others are not intensive enough, meaning a change is needed in parts.

We’re at a juncture now, where 2018 is going to change farming forever in Ireland.

“We need to embrace that change, whether that’s an expansion of contract rearing or contracts for the growing of forage going forward. I think we need to take the positives rather than the negatives out of 2018 when the year is done.”