Fears for farmers as operating costs soar

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A combination of poor harvests and soaring animal feed prices could deal a devastating blow to small farmers in north Northumberland, local officials have warned.

Extreme weather conditions around the world have caused the price of crops such as wheat, maize and soya – the main sources of animal feed – to skyrocket in recent weeks.

And poor harvests at home mean many livestock farmers will have to buy more feed from outside suppliers to supplement their own food sources.

With many north Northumberland farmers already struggling to cover their costs, there are fears that the price hikes will put some over the edge.

Rachael Gillbanks, of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), said that the average dairy farmer had to spend £3,600 more on feed last month than they did in April.

She said: “It’s a very significant situation and undoubtably the impact of our own late harvest are not going to make that problem any better.

“To be honest, how a lot of these guys are keeping going, it’s difficult to say. We’re very worried about the situation, particularly on the dairy side.”

The current price hikes are fuelled by droughts in southeastern Europe and the US.

The cost of wheat used for animal feed has risen by over 20 per cent in the past two months, and soya prices are up by more than half in 2012.

Duff Burrell, former chairman of the National Beef Association, who keeps 190 cattle at Broome Park Farm near Alnwick, said that smaller farmers are likely to be hardest hit as they are less able to place big feed orders in advance.

“It’s the smaller guys who haven’t got a plan that will have problems,” he said.

Pig and poultry farmers, who spend most of their operating costs on feed, are likely to be even worse affected.

The NFU estimates that some farmers are currently losing up to £18 for every pig they sell.

David Robson, chairman of the NFU in Northumberland and a beef and sheep farmer, said that the problem was a two-pronged one – rising feed costs for pig, poultry and dairy farmers; and low-quality fodder as a result of poor local harvests.

While most farmers have no shortage of ‘bread and butter’ fodder, there is very little high-quality feed – essential if animals are to be kept in prime condition.

“The weather this summer has really impacted on everybody,” he said.

But he called for the issue to be kept in proportion, and stressed that the farming industry is still relatively strong.

He said: “These problems aren’t new for farming. Most years something crops up that makes things difficult.

“We’ve had years like this before.”

The news comes weeks after dairy farmers warned that prices they were receiving for their milk were unsustainable.

Last month, six local dairy farmers attended a summit in London run by the NFU to vent their frustration at the price paid by supermarkets, which can be below the farm’s production costs.

And there could also be woe for arable farmers, who require sustained dry weather in order to harvest their crops properly, if the wet weather continues.

This summer has been one of the wettest on record.

“I think there’ll be a lot of arable farmers who are worried now,” Mr Robson said.

“If things don’t start to improve, there will be a major problem for them.”

Sources say that barley and oilseed rape yields in the area are well down, with much of the wheat harvest still to be collected.