Belfast Telegraph

Agri businesses feeling a bit under the weather

By David Elliott

News the Northern Ireland farming industry has been impacted by inclement weather over the last couple of years will hardly come as much of a shock.

Anyone who has so much as walked across a lawn or grass verge in recent days will realise that our soil is sodden.

Now imagine trying to walk a herd of cows or to drive a heavy tractor across that grass and you will have a good idea of the predicament farmers across the country have had not just this year, but last year as well, the period the latest statistics from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development refer to.

That both cereal and potato plantings are down sharply comes as no surprise given the fact autumn 2011 provided few opportunities to either harvest the previous season's crop, nor planting the next winter crop.

The latter factor is bad news because late sown winter crops or indeed spring sown crops don't produce as large yields and any late harvested crops run the risk of being lost or losing much of their quality.

This isn't a new phenomenon, what with the amount of both cereal and potato plantings falling for many, many years.

We can confidently say this because DARD handily provides a spreadsheet which tracks the history of Northern Ireland's farming back to 1847.

Back then our forefathers and mothers planted over 310,000 hectares of cereals, mostly oats, and 26,000 hectares of potatoes.

The area of potatoes grew to 113,000 hectares in 1860 but aside from a boom in production in the post war years the popularity of both has waned to current levels of 4,200 hectares and 37,000 hectares respectively.

Instead our farmers have moved to producing meat, because animals eat grass and our generally wet weather helpfully accommodates a healthy crop of grass each year.

It's the same, if opposite, reason why farmers in the dryer and hotter south east of England have gone in the opposite direction, cutting down their production of meat and vastly upping their acreage of cereals.

But the more intensive livestock farming which has become the norm over the last couple of decades has seen a larger number of animals reared in smaller spaces, mostly indoors, and fed on nutrient rich feed made from grain and only partly made up of forage.

That means we've become more reliant on feed grown in hotter, drier climates which we have to import and that makes us more vulnerable to global weather phenomenons, as well as those right here.

Every livestock farmer will know that the reason they're paying a huge premium for feed this year is because of a drought in the US midwest last summer.

So while we're all used to hearing farmers moan, they do have a point at the moment - one which has come about because of the globalisation of the industry.

Weekly Business Digest Newsletter

This week's business news headlines, directly to your inbox every Tuesday.