By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — That there is a growing crisis among livestock farmers in Ireland is widely accepted as fact. But how serious is it? What are its causes? And what will the future bring for the industry and, by extension, Irish consumers?
The problems today stem largely from continued bad, wet weather, which first struck Ireland last summer, leaving farmers short of hay and silage to feed livestock this winter. The problem has been made worse by the so-called income crisis, which has led to a shortage of cash needed to buy imported winter feed and whatever surplus fodder still exists.
For months farming organizations have been seeking government cash to help them buy fodder to keep their animals alive and their operations viable. The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, meanwhile, has noted that the crisis has already become so serious that there is now widespread starvation and death of livestock. Though farmers dispute the ISPCA assessment, they don’t deny that the growing crisis has potential to reach those proportions if the government fails to step in.
Many Irish livestock farmers today have been faced with the choice of selling some of their livestock at unrealistically low prices in order to buy feed for those they keep or hoping that animals will survive until the spring growth alleviates the situation.
However, recent heavy rain has left fields flooded or so waterlogged that farmers have been unable to spread nitrogen fertilizer to encourage early grass growth.
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The problem is being further compounded by co-ops and millers being unwilling to offer credit to some cattle farmers who they already regard as overstretched
Barbara Bent, chairperson of the ISPCA in Wexford, said there are normally only a few cases of neglect and starvation every year but that the organization is now encountering several every week.
She described the situation as "horrendous" and in "complete crisis" in the southeast, claiming that farmers there had previously sold surplus fodder to colleagues in the west of the country.
Straw, which had sold for £4 a bale last year, is now fetching £15 a bale. Hay prices have risen from £10 to £18 or £20 a bale.
Bent denied she was being alarmist. "I am 22 years doing this and it has got so bad that I can’t sleep at night for the things I am seeing on a daily basis on farms now," she said.
She said animals are standing in water all day and getting little or nothing to eat. Farmers holding on to cattle because of poor prices have made the problem worse.
Bent claims sheep have been lambing in a foot of water and the lambs were dead within minutes of being born because they were drowning.
"It has become too big for our society," she told RTE. "The Department of Agriculture crucially needs to get out there immediately."
Frank Allen, president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers’ Association, said the fodder crisis was the worst for a generation and estimated a cash injection of about £15 million is needed to alleviate it.
"An immediate fodder aid scheme needs to be put in place," he said. "Good work was done last September when the government put up £12 million. However, the situation has got much worse since then and a new look has to be taken."
He took issue, however, with the ISPCA’s assessment of the crisis, calling Bent’s comments "way over the top."
"There is no animal-welfare problem at the moment, but unless action is taken, there may well be in the future," Allen said. "There is sufficient fodder in the country, but it needs to get to the people who need it and they need money to buy it."
He said the inclement weather had been unprecedented. Some areas had effectively faced six months of winter already and are facing at least another three, he said.