Impact of wet weather on farmers and consumers

THE recent wet weather is set to further challenge the region’s farmers after months of inclement conditions.

THE recent wet weather is set to further challenge the region’s farmers after months of inclement conditions. For many businesses the repercussions are set to follow through into 2013 and possibly beyond. However, while the UK continues to flounder, North America has suffered from severe drought. Bruce Jobson considers the impact on farmers and consumers.

Barley crop being harvested

FOR many, 2012 will go down as a record year. The country bathed in Olympic glory, Bradley Wiggins became the first Brit to win the converted Tour De France Yellow Jersey and Andy Murray won a Grand Slam tennis event.

However, for UK farmers, as well as the general public, 2012 was a record-breaking wet year; with the heaviest recorded rainfall level in over 100 years.

Barley, wheat and oil seed rape crops took a hammering, placing further pressure on expected farm income as a result of yield loss and increased costs. By mid-August, the wet weather had caused harvest delays as both quality and yield were reduced across the country, with predictions that up to 70% of crops were sub-standard and the remaining 30% running at a normal level.

A lack of sunshine and torrential rain storms during the summer resulted in uneven ripening, crops going down and delays in field harvesting. For many arable farmers, a mid-summer night’s dream – turned into a harvest nightmare.

The inclement conditions have resulted in massive concerns for arable farmers according to former Agricultural Contractor of the Year, Roger Dickinson, managing director of JO Straughan, Stannington, Northumberland.

“This year’s ground conditions have been the worst in living memory and that’s been the same scenario right across the country,” he said. “Crop yields were reported as being down by 25% to 30% – with high moisture content.”

Mr Dickinson, who is chairman of the National Association of Agricultural Contractors (NAAC) states many farmers have been unable to undertake routine tasks this year, and have sought contractual assistance.

He said: “Agricultural contractors have acquired extra business due to pressures of harvest, crop delay; the wet ground conditions and pressure to lift crops from heavy fields in order to re-sow for 2013.

“A lot of contractors now operate combines with tracks and four-wheel drive, and have trailers with large flotation tyres. Contractors have been able to work in testing conditions that most farmers would find impossible.

“Ground conditions started to improve in November but the recent rain storms have completely saturated the land. Many farmers will hope field conditions improve by early next year and present good opportunities for spring planting. However, top quality seed could be expensive owing to pressure on supply and demand.”

The 2012 UK harvest was expected to produce increased tonnage level, with the total UK area for wheat, barley, oats and oil seed rape forecast to be 3% higher, at 3.81 million hectares, above 2011 levels.

The total UK wheat area also increased by 2% to 2.002 million hectares and UK oil seed rape area increased by 5% to 712,000 hectares. The failure to get arable crops back into the ground for harvest 2013 will have land volume and yield repercussions into 2014 and may subsequently spike further price increases for both farmers and consumers.

A recent survey of agronomists, responsible for approximately 240,000 hectares of arable land in England and Scotland, demonstrates the potential impact of reduced autumn and winter 2012 plantings owing to heavy rainfall and related poor soil conditions.

The report, conducted by Andersons and AICC, estimate a 12%, 9% and 3% reduction for winter wheat; winter barley and oil seed rape, respectively. Conversely, the national spring barley area is projected to increase by 40% to 865,000 hectares.

Beef and dairy farmers are also under pressure as a result of poor quality forage. The wet weather conditions and lack of sunshine during 2012 has impacted upon silage quality according to Keenan nutritionist Seth Wareing.

“We’re finding farmers across the region have decent quantities of silage but not the required quality,” he said.

“Quite simply, the region’s grassland didn’t get the required sunshine during the growing season.

“We’re advising livestock farmers to get their silage analysed continually over the winter period, and monitor forage quality through first and second cuts in order to feed an appropriate ration. First crop silage dry matter (DM) on some farms is down to 20% and on others; we’re seeing drier crops averaging around 45% DM.

“It is important beef farmers provide their animals with a balanced diet over the winter period; otherwise cattle are not going to put on the required weight gain.

Dairy farmers are in a similar predicament and unless cows are fed correctly, milk yield may drop by three or four litres per cow per day. On a 200-cow herd, that’s a daily reduction of 600-800 litres.

“Keenan is advising farmers not to be tempted into cutting back on concentrate feeding levels. Livestock farmers are facing increasing feed costs, especially for protein, and should consider various alternatives in the diet such as including co-products from the bio-fuel industry.

Co-products can help reduce the reliance on expensive imported protein such as gluten, soya bean meal and rape meal.”

Consumers are facing increases across numerous fronts including outdoor vegetables, which have also suffered from lack of sunshine and prolonged rainfall. Increases in animal feed costs is expected to filter into the human food chain resulting in 2013 price increases in beef, pork, poultry and lamb.

For a different set of reasons, US livestock and arable farmers are encountering major concerns. In August 2012, the United Nation’s agency for Food and Agriculture (FAO) announced the US price spike in maize and soya is causing concern, especially within EU feed sectors. The organisation blamed the severe deterioration of drought affected US maize crops to have caused a 23% price increase in July.

In August 2012, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced crop conditions for maize and soybean were the worst in 25 years.

In 2008 to 2009, the EU imported 4 million tonnes of maize as well as 33 million tonnes of soya, mostly from Brazil, Argentina and the US.

The worst US drought conditions in over half a century are threatening the livelihood of thousands of US dairy farmers. High feed prices are forcing milk producers to take drastic measures in order to maintain their businesses.

California, the largest US dairy state, is set to lose an estimated 100 dairies before the end of 2012. The state’s £5bn industry is under pressure as farmers are unable to pay their rising feed bills. Historic US corn prices have been at approximately £81 per US ton but early this summer topped the £187 per ton mark.

US farmers are selling productive dairy cows in order to help pay for the soaring price of animal feed. The number of cull cows going to slaughter is now at a 25-year high, resulting in a decrease in cull cow price, owing to an oversupply in the market. Cull cows have dropped from £1,247 to £748 per head.

The extreme US drought conditions and resulting feed price increases have been exacerbated due to the US administration’s 2009 ethanol mandate.

US legislation requires petroleum companies to blend 15 billion gallons of ethanol, made for corn, into the national supply by 2015. The figures have increased in line with legislation and last year, took an estimated 40% of the US corn crop.

This year’s ground conditions have been the worst in living memory and that’s been the same across the country


David Whetstone
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Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
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