Sympathy not backed up by hard cash in fodder crisis

The overall message to farmers is they are largely on their own to cope with their animal welfare crisis.

A few more years like the past one, and Food Harvest plans will be in disarray.

Since 12 months ago, farmers have been hoping for the weather to improve.

It didn’t improve, and who’s to say we won’t get another wet summer and late spring, two or three years in a row? Even Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney seemed to depend on good fortune when he expressed hopes last week that we will see better grass growth as the weather improves.

It seems that good wishes, and a subsidy for transport of imported fodder, are all the agricultural industry can depend on from the Government in emergencies like the fodder crisis.

With the Government planning to save €5.1bn over the next two budgets, sympathy for farmers’ plight cannot be backed up with significant financial help from the national exchequer.

In fairness to the minister, he had made that clear last August, saying there were limits to what the Government could do to support farmers affected by bad summer weather, other than get EU payments out early.

At the time, IFA recognised that a country on the rocks financially can do little to help out in emergencies like a fodder crisis, seeking no more than a guarantee that farm schemes not be cut in the budget, that disadvantaged area payments be made on time, and advance payment be made to all farmers.

Unfortunately, that was even too much to ask, with the budget leaving low income farmers up to €100 per week worse off, due to changes in farm assist, VAT refund, disadvantaged area and sheep grassland payments, on top of the tax and PRSI increases for all.

The overall message to farmers is they are largely on their own to cope with the crisis — and ensure that it is not repeated, because it is getting harder by the day to ensure sufficient fodder is saved for next winter.

The Common Agricultural Policy requires farmers to keep their livestock free from thirst, hunger and malnutrition, as part of the cross-compliance in the single farm payment scheme.

Surely that would justify Mr Coveney making an application to the EU Solidarity Fund (EUSF) which assists disaster-stricken member states — as proposed by ICMSA, which points out that EUSF has been used a number of times to help farmers across Europe.

Since 2000, EU farmers have been helped with EUSF payments on about 20 occasions.

In 2002 and 2005, Austrian farmers were helped to purchase forage and forage replacement products after damage by exceptional weather conditions — the very situation Irish farmers now find themselves in.

However, hoping for a saviour like the EUSF is the kind of thinking that has got farmers into trouble. And how many of those in trouble can say their farms were stocked at optimum levels relative to conditions and weather, rather than pushed to dangerous maximum levels?

Where farms were overstocked, and intensive grass utilisation practiced, a fodder disaster was always likely. This time round, it has been accompanied by a credit crisis which reflects a deep problem of inadequate profitability in Irish farming.

The crisis seems to have done long-term damage by turning farmers against Teagasc advice on intensive grass utilisation. But, in defence of Teagasc, they recommend that farmers always have a fodder reserve of 20%.

If a crisis like this can happen while dairy cow numbers are restrained by quota, one shudders to think what might happen after quota goes in 2015.

That is as big a challenge for co-ops as how they will process extra milk.

Right now, co-ops are stretched to the financial limit by farmers’ feed bills. At the last minute, they are importing badly needed forage. But longer-term planning is needed to ensure there is an adequate reserve of forage on Irish farms every year.

IFA president John Bryan warned last May that farmers needed a significant weather improvement to avoid serious winter fodder problems.

How a serious crisis was allowed develop since then over the past 11 months should be the subject of a national enquiry, into how a farming sector expected to increase production 33% by 2020 has fallen on its face.

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