Farming Review of the Year 2013
Published 18/12/2013 | 02:30
The year 2013 will go down in history as one of record highs and extreme lows. The farming sector was gripped by a spring fodder crisis that tested farmers' mettle in the most punishing way possible but buoyant demand for agricultural produce saw record milk prices and strong demand for beef help the recovery. Here, we take a look at the stories that shaped the past 12 months.
January 2013 opened with good news for Irish farmers, with the announcement that the live export trade to Libya was to resume.
In Munster, disgruntled Dairygold suppliers began a campaign of opposition to the co-op's milk supply agreement which included a heated meeting where the co-op's chief executive Jim Woulfe was shouted down by close to 1,000 suppliers.
But Dairygold's troubles paled in comparison to the can of worms that was opened up by the Food Safety Authority on January 15, when it announced that tests had found horsemeat in burgers.
With traces of horsemeat found in burgers on sale in Tesco, Dunnes Stores, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland, consumers recoiled from beef and the scandal threatened the future of Ireland's €9bn food export industry.
News of the findings spread to key Irish food markets all over the world and a complicated international web of meat trading was revealed.
The Silvercrest plant in Co Monaghan, which was owned by ABP at the time, was found to have imported blocks of frozen meat from Poland that contained 20pc horsemeat. ABP later blamed on intermediaries in the meat supply chain.
CAP reform dominated the farming headlines in February as European heads of state agreed to slash €65bn off the cost of running the European Union.
The move translated into a €93m cut to Ireland's national envelope for CAP funding, taking €42m out of farmers' single farm payments (SFP) and a similar amount out of Pillar II schemes like AEOS, DAS and LEADER.
Farmers in the west called for more radical distribution of the single farm payment, insisting that farmers with low SFP entitlements were entitled to more money.
Leitrim Macra caused waves when it suggested that Commissioner Ciolos in Brussels cared more about family farms in Ireland than the Government and farm organisations.
Fodder shortages became a serious issue in parts of the country, with some farms holding 100 animals or more admitting to having less than a week's supply of fodder.
The price of silage soared to €50/bale as farmers struggled to source fodder for their animals.
AIMS figures confirmed what many had feared, that animals were dying on farms due to hunger-related issues.
The number of on-farm deaths in January and February was up almost 9,000hd on the previous year.
The IFA faced a revolt from within its own ranks as farmers with low SFP entitlements called for a fairer redistribution of the national fund.
A letter, signed by 23 prominent IFA members, including branch chairmen and secretaries, called for the IFA to end its "continued insistence on minimising any redistribution of the SFP".
Meanwhile, talk of 2015 becoming a reference year for payments threatened to push an already overheated land rental market into overdrive.
Hundreds of farmers with spare hay, silage and straw responded to a Teagasc call to help those struggling with a shortage. Demand for concentrate feed soared, with feed mills working 24/7 to meet farmer requirements.
However, as April progressed and there was no sign of the weather improving enough to allow animals out to graze, the situation became so desperate that Irish farmers were forced to scour Europe for fodder.
Co-ops, marts and farm organisations frantically searched for suppliers of hay at up to €135/bale in an attempt to stave off an animal welfare catastrophe. More than 22,000 additional animals had died on farms as a result of the fodder crisis.
Articulated lorry-loads of hay, subsidised by a Department of Agriculture €1m emergency fund, arrived daily into Ireland and were instantly devoured. Grass was harvested and donated from unusual locations, including Shannon and Dublin airports and the median of motorways.
Minister Simon Coveney announced a doubling of the fodder transport scheme to €2m as the crisis deepened. The fodder crisis was estimated to cost farmers €900m by the ICMSA.
The bill was calculated based on a 30pc increase in concentrate feeding, a 40cp hike in the cost of fodder, more than €32m worth of animals dead and a drop in farm output of milk and beef.
While some farmers were lucky enough to be able to harvest some silage in May, many were still reliant on imported fodder. The stress and emotional cost of the crisis took a savage toll on some farmers and reports of suicide rose.
Meanwhile, the impact of the earlier horsemeat scandal was felt in a positive way as factory demand for prime beef cattle grew by the week.
Glanbia announced its plans for a €150m plant at Belview Port.
As the weather finally improved so too did the national mood among farmers. Milk supplies soared as co-ops pushed milk price towards 38c/l and bigger milk cheques went some way towards easing concerns about crippling feed bills on farms.
However, banks and co-ops warned that the agricultural industry was creaking under the mountain of debt from the fodder and weather crisis.
CAP negotiations continued apace, with Minister Simon Coveney in the hot seat as president of the Council of Farm Ministers for the final trialogue negotiations between the European Commission, European Parliament and the European Council.
The end result for farmers is a minimum payment of €146/ha for every hectare of eligible land in the EU farm payment system.
With the €1.6bn CAP budget allocated to Ireland, the real fight began at home over how the money should be redistributed among farmers. The level of redistribution from one farmer to another is an area of major contention as farmers with low entitlements battled to increase their payments and farmers with high entitlements clung to the status quo.
The lamb trade was given a boost in July as 5,000 ram lambs and hoggets were included in a shipment to Libya.
And in a remarkable turnaround, farmers went from cursing Ireland's miserable and wet weather to worrying about drought as a heatwave gripped the country.
The first of many 'clawback' letters were sent to farmers who, the Department of Agriculture said, had overclaimed on their SFP and DAS payments.
Harvesting began on tillage farms all over Ireland with some record yields achieved. The total harvest topped 2.12m tonnes and the average winter barley yield was the highest ever at 9.5t/ha. However a bumper maize harvest in the United States kept a lid on grain prices in Europe, limiting the potential profits for growers.
Dairy farmers were given a sharp reminder of how food safety issues had the potential to damage their business when New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra was forced to issue a recall for whey powder.
Sales of Fonterra product in China fell by 50pc in the days following the recall.
But rising milk prices in Ireland lured more beef farmers to consider switching to dairy ahead of the 2015 planned expansion.
More than 100,000 tractor owners scrambled to get their motor tax affairs in order as the Gardai took a tougher stance on untaxed machines.
The move caused consternation in local tax offices as farmers joined the scramble to become compliant.
As debate over coupled payment raged between the farm organisations, Minister Coveney hinted at a new 'quality-based' payment for suckler producers. Milk price moved ever higher, reaching 39c/l and northern dairies began to court milk suppliers south of the border.
Tillage growers splashed out €20m on new combines and the National Ploughing Championships attracted a record attendance of 230,000 people to Ratheniska, Co Laois.
Beef producers raged against the ever-widening gap between Irish and British beef prices.
While British producers enjoyed a 16c/kg price rise for R-grade steers, their Irish counterparts suffered a drop of 43c/kg during the same period.
Ash dieback was discovered in a native ash tree for the first time, despite every attempt to limit the spread of the costly disease.
Despite the threat of a €20m superlevy, dairy farmers continued to milk their cows to cash in on high milk prices that helped clear some merchant credit.
Department inspectors examined the curious case of Holstein cows grazing on moorland 560m above sea level as sheep farmers protest against the requirement to fence in mountain land.
Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney led a trade mission to the Gulf States with the aim of securing €500m food and drink contracts.
Accompanied by meat processors ABP, Dawn Meat and Kepak, the Irish Dairy Board and Bord Bia and almost 30 other companies, the event saw Irish food and drink promoted to buyers in several oil-rich Gulf States.
Opposition to Eirgrid's plan to erect a network of 45m-high electrical pylons began to grow, with hundreds of concerned people attending local meetings.
The livestock sector and marts in particular were rocked when TLT International went into receivership, owing marts and farmers over €3m for cattle. Grant Thornton receiver Gearoid Costelloe described the level of trust and credit in the trade as "a fundamental flaw".
Minister Coveney and the IFA went head-to-head on the issue of 50:50 co-funding for CAP Pillar II schemes, with the Minister warning the farm organisation to be "realistic" about the chances of securing maximum exchequer funding.
The total bill for farmers under the controversial land parcel review was pegged at between €15m and €20m.
As we went to press, the IFA was poised to announce its new president -- Laois man Jer Bergin or Meath's Eddie Downey will lead the farm organisation in 2014.