Worsening weather conditions mean a fodder crisis could still be on the cards Ulster Unionist Party leader, Robin Swann, has warned.

Swann said the findings of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) December 2017 agricultural survey “lay bare” the level of exposure Northern Ireland has to a major fodder crisis later in the spring.

He urged the department to put a plan in place.

He said: “Last year was an awful year for getting fodder lifted. Whilst quite a few farms locally were lucky to get good high-yielding first cuts of silage made, in many parts of Northern Ireland from mid-summer onwards the land never had time to dry.

Even before last August’s storms – during which the Met Office confirmed two-thirds of the average rainfall for the month came down in a matter of hours in some places – much of the land across was already saturated.

“The enduring poor ground conditions resulted in second cuts either being delayed by months, or not getting lifted at all. That, combined with the fact that cattle were being housed months earlier than normal, has meant that many local farmers are sitting with much lower levels of fodder than they ideally would have preferred.”

‘At the mercy of the spring’

Swann added: “Whilst I am aware of many farmers selling young stock earlier than they usually would, as well as using extra feed to compensate for less silage, the reality remains that many are still completely at the mercy of what the spring weather holds.

If it’s a good spring and cattle can get out then they should make it through; if it’s a bad spring and cattle have to stay in longer then they will face spiralling prices and real difficulty in actually sourcing quality fodder.

“We will have to wait and see; however, I would urge DAERA to look at some of the preparatory work that officials in the Republic of Ireland are undertaking in response to their fodder shortage. I have written to the department asking what arrangements are in place.

“It’s better to have plans in place just in case we do end up in a situation such as 2013 when some local farms were simply not able to secure fodder for their animals.”

Agricultural survey

“Now, thanks to the annual DAERA survey, which provides information on levels of hay and silage production and sowings of winter cereals, for the first time we can determine just how bad the shortfall is,” Swann said.

The survey provides estimates of the numbers of cattle, sheep and pigs on farms at the beginning of December. In addition, it provides information on levels of hay and silage production and sowings of winter cereals.

Because of poor weather conditions for the second and third cuts, average yields for 2017 were just 29.5t/ha – the lowest yield recorded in 12 years.

The amount of hay produced also hit its lowest ever recorded.

Swann said: “Yields were significantly down on the year before – even with the fact that 2016 was also such a bad summer that it was a low baseline to start off with.

“Other crops such as winter wheat didn’t get off to a good growing start either, especially as they were crying out for a bit of August sunshine, and then many farmers encountered major delays in harvesting them.”

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