Belfast Telegraph

Storm clouds gathering over farming sector

Latest figures reveal tough conditions and disappointing returns as UFU chief warns of trouble ahead

By Amanda Poole

Wet weather has caused a drop in the area of cereal and potato crops grown in Northern Ireland over the last year while livestock numbers have increased, according to the latest government figures.

The Agricultural Census revealed life was made even more difficult for already hard-pressed farmers, and industry experts have said further challenges lie ahead.

The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) report indicates the total area of winter cereals planted last autumn for harvest in 2012 fell 19% to 16,600 hectares while potato plantings were down 14% at 4,200 hectares.

Much of the shortfall in cereal planting was made up by an 18% increase in the area of spring barley to 20,200 ha, but overall cereal area was down 800ha, a 2% reduction compared to the previous year. Spring cereal production tends to produce lower yields than those sown in the autumn.

Difficult harvesting conditions in autumn 2011 and poor returns have contributed to the decline in plantings.

The area of forage maize was 21% lower in June, at 1,900 ha, a 45% decrease since 2008.

But Northern Ireland's livestock herd has expanded over the last year. Total cattle numbers were up 2%, at 1.625m head with the number of dairy cows up by 1% at 285,400 head and the number of beef cows increased by 4% to 279,200.

The beef cow herd is 9% bigger than in 2009, but remains 20% below the 1998 high of 345,000.

The number of breeding ewes is 5% higher than last year, with a flock size of 938,000, the highest recorded since 2007.

There was little change in the size of the pig breeding herd, which stood at 38,300 in June and in terms of poultry there were 19.2m birds reported on farms in June, down by 2%, with most of the fall in broiler production.

The census reveals no change in farmer and spouse numbers, but a 6% increase in other workers, with an overall workforce increase of 1%, mainly in part-time and casual labour.

Ulster Farmers Union President, Harry Sinclair, said if the survey was taken today it would be clear most sectors are downsizing due to bad weather, rising costs and disappointing farm gate prices.

"The census figures show a 4% increase in the number of beef cows in our industry, suggesting a confident sector, but persistent poor beef prices since the summer, much lower than the rest of the UK, has seen many farmers recently cull additional beef cows because they fear they won't be able to keep them over the winter profitably," Mr Sinclair said.

The value of gross output from the agricultural industry in 2011 was £1.7bn, an increase of almost 13% compared with the previous year and this generated a gross value added (GVA) of some £437m.

Total income from farming was estimated to be £308m in 2011.

A DARD spokeswoman acknowledged the agricultural industry has faced volatile markets in recent years.

"The past six months have been particularly difficult given the very poor summer and the negative impact that this has had for crop, forage and animal production," he said. "This has coincided with a period of sharply increased animal feedstuffs costs.

"As a result, the winter ahead is going to be very challenging for farmers in almost all sectors."

Too much rain and lack of sunshine reaps a bitter harvest

By John Best

Farmer John Best is chairman of the UFU seeds and cereals group.

"Last year the big drop in cereal acreage was due to bad weather," he says.

"Planting conditions were difficult and a limited amount of crop got in.

"This year is probably even worse, as even less winter crop got in.

"A lot of it is struggling, especially oilseed rape, because it was too late going in.

"It was planted in the hope the weather would improve, but that didn't happen.

"There is a big reduction in what was planted throughout the island.

"From Northern Ireland farmers' point of view winter wheat is the most profitable crop for dedicated cereal farms.

"But yields have been poor because of too much rainfall but there was also a complete lack of sunshine and that's what determines yields.

"What has happened will impact on farm incomes next year."

"Yields were poor. That is partly because of too much rainfall - but there was a complete lack of sunshine and that's what determines yields. The biggest contribution Stormont can make at this minute is getting the Single Farm Payments out promptly."