Farm Ireland

Thursday 17 January 2019

‘Young dairy farmers will struggle without a 35c/l milk price ’

Farmer Alfie Hughes, Inch, Gorey, Co Wexford. Picture: Garry O'Neill
Farmer Alfie Hughes, Inch, Gorey, Co Wexford. Picture: Garry O'Neill

Ken Whelan

Alfie Hughes was reviewing progress on the “rebuild” on his three span shed at his farm in Inch, Co Wexford when we spoke last week, while at the same time taking what shelter he could from the incoming hail and sleet of the latest storm.

“It’s been one long winter,” says Alfie. “The three span shed collapsed when the thaw set in after Storm Emma. The snow stayed on the roof for the entire time and when it began to thaw the whole building collapsed. It had been up for 45 years and when it fell down it caused serious problems for housing the herd — things were overcrowded.

“Anyway, we were alright because we were insured and now there is a week of work left on replacing the shed,” the 54-year-old lifelong farmer explains.

Alfie farms 40 acres of the home farm with an additional 60 acres rented outside the north Wexford village where he runs a split 85-strong herd of British Friesians and Holsteins. He has also started to add some sucklers to the enterprise over the past few years.

Alfie is married to Sandra who works at the local grain company and also helps on the farm at the weekends. He took over the family farm in the early-1990s and although “happy out” with the way things have gone since then, he is singularly unhappy with the volatility in the milk prices he has been getting of late.

Glanbia’s milk is down to 33c/l at the moment, which is below the 35c/l that Alfie believes is the very minimum required for  dairy farmers to survive.

“Unless a floor price of at least 35c/l is put on the milk prices, young farmers and those with high overheads are going to struggle,” he says. “I am alright because I don’t have the overheads and I have no plans to expand, but not everyone is as lucky.”

Alfie accepts, of course, that the dairy sector is not back in the old days of prices in the low 20s that prevailed during the economic crash.

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“I accept that. I remember those days, I remember Glanbia’s John Moloney addressing dairy farmers in Enniscorthy in 2009 when they were demanding an extra c/l,” he says.

Alfie recalls that farmers left the meeting in despair as they were told the 1c/l rise was just not possible in that economic environment.

“Today is different, we are in a global market now and the selling price for milk must be related to the production cost.”

Pressing home his argument, Alfie claims that things were better for dairy farmers in the quota era.

He is quick to admit that such an idea would be greeted with roars of disapproval by farmers today but sticks to his guns that some kind of market intervention on milk prices is needed.

“The price was good last year but is falling back already this year,” says Alfie. “That type of market volatility has to be addressed by the authorities.”

However, for the moment he is only really thinking about his shed rebuild and once that is completed next weekend — assuming the Easter wintry weather has not thrown the schedule out of kilter — then it’s onto the new project: expanding his suckler herd despite concerns over prices in the sector at the moment.

“I have five sucklers at the moment, but I will have a bigger herd over the next few years,” he says in the full expectation that they will provide an insurance policy against what he believes will be a roller coaster for dairy farmers over the next few years.

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