‘Even the leaves burned off the briars . . . It was something we had never seen before’
Irish Lives: As the fodder crisis takes its toll one farmer speaks of the day-to-day struggle
The nationwide shortage of animal fodder is impacting deeply on Murray. Like other farmers across the country, he is struggling with high feed costs and a shortage of hay and silage caused by a bad winter.
His mixed farm is located in a scenic spot with Mount Leinster to one side and the sea to the other – just a mile inside the Wexford border at Knocknagappale and a couple of kilometres north of Monaseed, birthplace of Myles Byrne, leader in the 1798 Rebellion.
Pat Murray is the latest in a long line of Murrays to have farmed here but in over 30 years of farming, the 52-year-old says this has probably been the toughest year he has faced.
The month of March was recorded as the coldest on record with temperatures 3 degrees below normal in most places. However, conditions on the Murray farm were further compounded by a bitter east wind.
“It burned any grass that was on the ground. There were a few really wet days and ice rain fell and that did a lot of damage. Even the briars burned – the leaves burned off them,” he said. “It was something different – something we had never seen before.”
The first casualties were his early spring lambs of which he lost up to 10 per cent.
“We ran into serious difficulties here with lambs only a month old picking up pneumonia with the cold weather. We never had to contend with that before.”
Like many of his neighbours, Murray keeps a mixed farm. He has 40 suckler cows and 85 ewes on 100 acres. About a third of the land is kept to grow winter feed while the animals graze on the rest.
In any given year he would not normally expect to have to resort to buying silage or feed.
“My own ran out in early March and I’ve had to purchase feed which I wouldn’t usually have to do. My winter started so early. I had to start feeding the animals at the end of August when I wouldn’t usually have to start until the end of October.”
Last year’s wet weather and cold temperatures has also taken its toll on the land.
“If you look at the fields here and if you walk the fields, even though they look quite green, the amount of grass that’s on them is very, very little because the temperature you need to grow grass needs to be above 6 degrees and yet for most of the month of March it was 3 degrees.”
Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s assertion in the Dáil this week that farmers could depend on neighbours to share fodder was of little comfort to Murray as sources are sold out.
“That’s the problem, if I go around here looking for silage, I could travel a 10-mile radius and I wouldn’t be able to get silage. Everybody around here is in the same boat.”
Farmers who have run out of fodder have had to resort to buying more expensive feed and are paying far higher prices than those they paid only 12 months ago.
“Meal is costing 40 per cent more.If I take my little trailer and buy three tonne of meal that’s costing me over €1,000 a shot – that’s an awful lot of money when it was costing me about €600-€700 for a three-tonne load.”
Murray, who is also chair of the Wexford branch of the IFA, says he has seen the psychological toll on farmers.
“I see people who are even worse than myself. People who have built a lot of sheds and have a lot of borrowings. They can’t source the fodder and even if they could, they haven’t got the money to pay for it.
“I’ve a fella who rang me and who has 150 cattle and a huge credit problem. He has no feed. We’ve asked neighbours to help but we’ve found it very difficult to find food for him.”
“Once we know about it we’ll try to help if we can. We’ll try to source some fodder. I haven’t seen cases like that before.”
In desperation, some farmers are trying to offload stock, resulting in a drop in prices.
“There’s a 30 per cent increase in mart sales. There are a lot of cattle that’s coming into the marts that are not in very good condition because of the tough winter we’ve had.”
The price of cattle has dropped substantially as very few farmers have the grass to feed the animals; prices are as low as €300-€350 a head down from about €650 to €1,000 at one point.
Government cuts to the disadvantaged areas scheme, which has affected some 100,000 farmers, and the ending of the suckler cow welfare scheme, have also had an adverse effect.
“I’ve been cut my disadvantage payments. I’m eating into my single farm payment now. Where a cow was costing an average of maybe €500 to keep for a year – because of the winter she’s probably costing nearer €800 this year. I’m barely covering my costs.”
Murray believes Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney’s recent announcement of a €1 million scheme to fund the transport costs of importing fodder is welcome but he says he needs to be more proactive.
“There is a European fund there for disasters and this is an absolute disaster. It has been building up for a long time. This is an absolute crisis.”
“He needs to put pressure on the co-ops and he needs to meet the banks where fellas are having serious financial problems; loans will need to be extended.”
Ambitious growth plans for the farming sector have been proposed by the Government but Murray says a lot of farmers are beginning to question that.
“This year has had a big effect on the way farmers think about how to farm. A lot of farmers have responded by increasing production and they have been caught now by the length of the winter.
A change in the weather could turn things around very quickly. “If we got a week of warm weather the whole thing would change around and the crisis will end but we are looking at a couple of weeks down the road and the main problem is to keep the animals going for those couple of weeks.”
However, Murray’s problem is more immediate. “That’s my last load of silage and you can see the fields over there, there’s not a lot of grass on them. I don’t know where I’ll source my next fodder.”