Pig farmers face 'worrying times'

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 28th March, 2012 12:30pm

Pig farmers face 'worrying times'

Pig farmer Brian Brady inspects his sows at his welfare compliant and Bord Bia approved Pottle Farm outside Ballyjamesduff. Photo: Sheila Rooney.

A four-page Farm Focus special is featured in this week's Anglo-Celt. Check it out for all the latest farm news and mart reports.

Some Cavan pig farmers will be forced out of business due to the sow welfare regulations unless bank loans are freed up, warn those within the local pork sector.

Under new regulations coming into force from December 31 this year, each sow must have 24/25 sq ft of space.

"It is a worrying time," Mountnugent pig farmer Michael Caffrey tells The Anglo-Celt. "There's only 40% of the herd in Cavan welfare friendly at the moment, so there are 60% left to be done. That's going to cost the guts of €40 million nationally."

According to Michael, who is a member of the IFA committee, Cavan farms represent 20% of the national pig herd. If the costs are proportionate, the bill for making farms compliant in Cavan alone could come to €8 million. Nationally a total of €13 million has been set aside in grants for the farmers, but that only lessens the problem, it doesn't solve it. Farmers who spend up to €300,000 are eligible for grants to cover 40% of upgrade costs. That leaves, for instance a farmer who has had to carry out a €300,000 upgrade, having to find €180,000 out of his own pocket with no extra production. If he spends beyond €300,000 he still only receives a grant of €120,000.

Although he has completed some of the required work, Michael's farm is amongst the 60% of those in Cavan still not compliant: "I have only part of it done and I've more to do".

Michael doesn't expect to have any wriggle room with the deadline, so pig farmers have to find the money in the worst time possible economic climate. Persuading banks to provide loans to finance the upgrades is a challenge.

"I have planning permission to build an extension," says Michael, "but it's getting the money, and at the minute that's the problem. We're talking to the banks but there's nothing guaranteed yet."

He adds: "The banks, if they do give you money they are looking for more security and with the nature of pig farming, you don't have a lot of security.

"We are talking to the government to see if anything can be done - can they come up with some form of security. It's all in the melting pot at the moment."

He notes that since the banks are effectively owned by the State, the government should compel them to provide funding.

If the matter is not resolved he fears he will have to reduce his number of sows.

Will Cavan farmers go out of business? "It is quite possible, yes."

Ballyjamesduff farmer Brian Brady is, more certain on this question: "Yes definitely."

Brian counts himself fortunate that he is one of the 40% of Cavan farmers currently welfare compliant. It wasn't foresight, but a Department of Agriculture inspection back in 2006 which led him to carry out the upgrade work at Pottle Farm the following year. His stock were tethered, a practice that was soon to be outlawed, and in changing over to a 2013 welfare compliant system he missed out on the standard stalls system.

Given that finance was much easier to come by in 2007 he was able to build a new pig house and expand the farm.

"From a banking point of view it was easier to get money then," he recalls. "I can understand other farmers' plight because money is hard to get and the business is in tatters for want of a better word. I don't know how they are going to be able to be compliant by January 1.

"After two years of negative profits it is beyond me how farmers are expected to do this."

He says that to carry out the upgrade it costs €750 per sow. That includes 24 sq ft of space per sow, slurry tank, slatted accommodation, feed system, penning, insulation and ventilation of the building to a finished specification.

He believes that the grant should cover at least 50% of the cost of the works to reflect that where once you could house two sows, farmers can now only house one, noting, "It is a big investment to stand still."

Standing still traditionally wasn't a phrase anyone associated with pig farming in the county as it has created significant employment for the area, both directly, and through spin-off work for suppliers - everything from hardware stores through to electricians and hauliers.

Although Brian accepts that the welfare compliant system is good, he says it is "harder to manage". He says there's scope for the sows to fight, but notes that they "settle down" after a while. The financial demands being placed on pig farmers is coming against a backdrop of a pig sector crisis.

"The returns are bad because our input costs are extremely high, ie, feed," says Brian.

Michael agrees explaining that in the last two years they have gone up over 20% - which is even more significant given that feed accounts for between 68-70% of input on his farm. "At this time we were expecting the feed prices to be coming well back but instead of that they are hardening again," he said.

IFA, Teagasc and pig farmers are all lobbying for change, and have had meetings with Minister Simon Coveney's representatives. Asked if he thinks the minister appreciates the state of play, Michael says his representatives "maintain he does - so I hope he does."

Farmers can only hope that through lobbying they can persuade the banks to be more supportive in supplying loans.

"It's about coming to a consensus for the banks to release money," says Michael. "They are not releasing it to anyone - we're not the only ones in this position. But we're being forced into a position that's not going to make any money for us by the end of the year and if we don't get it done we're farming illegally."

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