700 dairy cattle to be sold off as low prices force Northern Ireland farmers to quit
More than 700 dairy cows in Northern Ireland - including a herd belonging to the province's richest family - are currently listed to go under the hammer on one livestock auctioneer's sales book as farmers queue up to quit the industry.
Dairy farmers have been under immense pressure for the past two years as global demand and milk prices have fallen dramatically.
Even though prices have started to slowly climb in the past few weeks, the writing is still on the wall for a number of local farmers.
Some are retiring from dairy farming, but for others the price rise has come too late as they simply cannot continue to sustain huge losses, and have decided to quit.
Farming income in Northern Ireland fell from £312m to £183m between 2014 and 2015, according to official figures - a huge drop of more than 40% in a single year.
That was less than the total value of subsidies, which were £236m.
The biggest driver was a fall in dairy prices, which dropped by 27% to £480m.
This week, Co Louth-based livestock auctioneers, Taaffe Auctions, has listed over 700 dairy animals that will be sold at auctions in Dungannon Farmers Mart and through other on-farm sales in Co Tyrone.
One of the herds up for sale belonged to the late Lord Ballyedmond - better known as Eddie Haughey - the founder of Norbrook Laboratories Ltd, who was tragically killed in a helicopter accident in Norfolk in March 2014.
The entire pedigree milking herd of 76 cows, as well as 24 springing heifers, 24 bulling and maiden heifers, 10 heifer calves and a stock bull will be sold on November 15.
According to the farm manager, John Meade, the Haughey family, who own Ballyedmond Castle Farms Ltd, have decided to restructure their farming operations in order to "reduce overall losses".
Mr Meade, who has worked at the farm in Rostrevor for the past four years, said: "The family have been very passionate about farming and milking cows but have taken the decision to restructure the farm and cease dairying.
"It's been a very tough decision for the family and one they have not taken lightly, but they wanted to reduce overall losses. "We have a modern dairy milking facility here but, with the current climate regarding milk prices, we felt it is better to concentrate on our other farming activities here, including beef and sheep farming."
"Having been involved with this painful decision to sell the cows here voluntarily, I cannot imagine the pain any farmer has to go through if facing a foreclosure due to lack of cash flow. It must be terrible.
"There are not too many dairy farmers making money, with prices hovering around the 20 pence per litre mark, and some are really struggling to pay bills.
"For some, offloading the cows may seem to be an extraordinary measure to gain some cash flow but these are no ordinary times in dairying," he added.
Michael Taaffe from Taaffe Auctions said there is a range of reasons why farmers are selling up. "Some farmers are retiring and were just waiting until milk prices went up a little so that the stock would rise in price too," he explained.
"Others are indeed finding it tough-going. The lever is with the milk processors to increase the prices paid to farmers so that the entire industry benefits.
"Some families are at the end of their tether and simply cannot afford to lose any more money," he added.
Charlie Weir, chairman of Fair Price Farming NI, said increased auctions are a worrying trend.
He said: "Many dairy farmers are being forced out due to the insecurities of low milk prices.
"Many people who work in the dairy processing industry are also losing their jobs, just look at the 70 job losses at the Fane Valley factory in Banbridge.
"Processors are looking for more milk but, if more farmers quit, the amount of milk available in Northern Ireland is getting less. Farmers cannot keep on milking at a loss, the processors must increase prices so everyone can stay in business."