MINISTER for Agriculture Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, has become the butt of the ire of farming organisations and opposition politicians over the perceived lethargy of the government’s response to the animal fodder supply situation, as there seems to be no end to the winter of 2017/’18 with cattle still having to be kept indoors coming up to the middle of April.
In many cases, because of the wetter-than-normal weather, interspersed with storms and a few severe cold snaps, cattle have been housed since as far back as last September because ground conditions were not suitable and grass growth has been minimal for the past six months, leading to many farmers exhausting their own winter fodder supplies. The incessant rainfall has been showing no signs of any significant let-up and the final straw was the wash-out that was the Easter weekend by which time farmers would have hoped to have had their animals out grazing in the fields.
With the exception of 2013, in several recent years, farmers in the more temperate south west have been able to let their cattle out from February to November and get the bones of 300 days of grazing outdoors. Cattle fed like this provide the big selling point for Irish dairy products, setting them apart as premium purchases in markets abroad.
Not having the cattle grazing in the fields for as long could damage our hard-won reputation and deprive agencies such as Ornua and Bord Bia of a key marketing tool. One would hope that the setbacks this past winter will not become the norm, although some climate experts claim that the wetter winters are a symptom of global warming and a portent of things to come.
If that proves to be the case, a lesson to learn from the current fodder shortfall – glib though it might seem to those suffering at the moment – is that farmers need to prepare better for such eventualities that may become more commonplace in the future. Amid all the slings and arrows being directed at him last week, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed persisted in protesting that all the government’s actions at the various stages were ‘measured and appropriate.’
One of the most serious criticisms was that the Minister and his Department officials were in denial about the size of the problem and the extent to which it could escalate, and eventually did. They had been gambling on the weather improving, which would have helped make the fodder problem go away, but that did not happen.
Matters were not helped by the Department’s poorly-conceived reaction to a fodder shortage in the north west of the country in January, its limited transport subsidy scheme getting a minimal response. This and Minister Creed’s too-measured response to the escalating crisis, only doing the least he had to whenever his hand was forced, did not go down well with the farming community and – even though we don’t doubt the sincerity of his concern about the problem – from his own PR viewpoint, he could have articulated more empathy in farmers’ time of need and not ended up being seen at some stages as part of the problem rather than the solution.
And, we’re not talking about just paying lip service; there are plenty of other politicians doing too much of that already. People out in the farming community are hurting, as our recent Great West Cork Farming Survey revealed, 51% of farmers feel isolated in their work and one in four of these felt their mental health is affected by this, so the fodder crisis is bound to trigger anxiety and feelings of inadequacy as they worry about how they are going to feed their animals and maintain their livelihoods, and perhaps are too ashamed to ask for help.
They not only need to be made feel that somebody in authority is listening to their plight and prepared to come to their aid, but they need to hear that too. Such empathy is a hallmark of good leadership.
Great credit is due to the farmers’ co-ops who pro-actively sought out fodder abroad to import for their members even before the Minister announced a welcome €1.5m allocation towards the introduction of a Fodder Import Support measure. Many co-ops are also supplying rations at cost to get their members through this difficult time and to help ensure their animals’ welfare.
All of this comes as an extra cost to farmers that is going to affect their bottom line. The paucity of grass growth so far this year is also going to have a knock-on effect, so they will need all the help they can get in what, hopefully, are exceptional circumstances.