Richard Hackett: 'How do cheap maize imports tally with our 'grass-based' farming image?'

Richard Hackett

I began last month's article by commenting how spring has taken off in a big way. Things have dramatically slowed down since with Mother Nature intervening, as she so often does, to balance out the season.

It's the first time since the 2018/19 crops have been sown that they in any way look haggard and rough.

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They had been sown, established, over-wintered and developed in near ideal temperature and moisture conditions.

Suddenly, the turn for the worse in the weather - coupled in some cases with some overzealous applications of plant growth regulator and fungicides - means there has been a significant shock to the system; but it's not time to panic as yet. A rule of thumb is that a crop doesn't 'have' to look well until the flag leaves have emerged.

Crops are bang on target as to where they should be at this time of year. There is plenty of time for the weather to improve and for new leaves to emerge and re-establish the potential they were showing for the upcoming harvest.

However, it's on that front that the main worry is. Last year produced the smallest national grain harvest in 23 years.

In contrast, the national livestock population is on the increase, especially the population of dairy cows.

Last autumn we had a 'call to arms' to gather fodder for the upcoming winter, with plenty of hyperbole about what tillage farmers should be doing to come to the aid of the stricken dairy farmer in particular.

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Why then, as we approach the summer, are there stores full of barley that can't be sold?

The problem is so critical that there are genuine concerns that there won't be enough storage space for the 2019 harvest to go, such is the number of stores that are still full.

Why is this the case?

There are many reasons. The extremely benevolent autumn/winter/spring that led to such luxuriant winter crops also had the effect of reducing concentrate feed demand.

It's also true that many livestock farmers had spent so much in the early part of 2018 purchasing in feed they hadn't the purchasing power to buy in more concentrates. An argument could also be made that the high protein fodder from the successful catch crop initiative also dampened demand for concentrate feeds.

But all these factors pale into insignificance when you look at imports.

A convoy of boats has arrived at the ports since last autumn looking to unload maize and maize by-products that has flooded the world with cheap sources of energy and protein.

Barley that was overpaid for last autumn by slightly panicked traders hasn't a hope competing with the constant flow of cheap maize emanating from the Americas.

'X' factor

On one level this is fine. It's supply and demand. People like myself who advocate a more commercial agricultural model have to accept that the market is the market. There's winners and there's losers.

However, the food business doesn't exactly work like that. Food marketeers know there is another 'X' factor involved in the decision making processes that go into food purchase.

Beef and dairy product marketeers, in particular have this 'X' factor down to a 'T'. They sell Irish produce on the basis of its grass-based origins and high standards.

They don't sell produce on the basis that their main feed input might well be sub-standard imported grain.

The late Lou Reed showed off an obvious agricultural streak with his haunting chorus of 'you're gonna reap just what you sow' on the song 'Perfect Day'.

But this truism has now been turned on its head by business management gurus who advocate 'reaping where you didn't sow'.

This is a term used to describe making money where no long-term investment has been made. You have to ask if it an approach some segments of our beef and dairy are now following.

In effect they are using cheap protein to develop a product that is then sold on the basis of a 'green' story that eventually no one will believe.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north Co Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

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