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Farming

NFU Cymru President, John Davies: ‘Much work ahead’

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AS WE close the book on what has been an eventful year, I’d like to survey the events of 2019 and look ahead to see what is on the horizon in 2020.

We’ve just emerged from the third UK General Election in four years, following what has been a period of extraordinary political instability. The result of December’s election gives the Prime Minister the majority he has been seeking to take forward his Brexit plans. Although in legal terms we cease to be an EU Member State at the end of January, there is much work ahead to secure the access we need to our nearest and most valuable export market.

Although uncertainty persists, I am ambitious for our sector. Wales’ farmers have the skills, natural resource base and ambition from which to rise to future challenges and opportunities which lie ahead. These opportunities include increasing our self-sufficiency by producing more high-quality food, securing new export markers and becoming producers of the most climate-friendly food in the world by becoming zero net emitters of greenhouse gases by 2040.

Leaving the EU at the end of January based on the current withdrawal agreement means that we enter a transition period, during which time we continue to enjoy access to the EU’s single market. We must ensure that when that transition ends, we can access that market on the most favourable terms possible, with tariff and non-tariff barriers eliminated wherever possible. The UK’s government must also avoid a situation whereby the transition period elapses without having reached an agreement on a future trading relationship with the EU, culminating in us trading with the EU on WTO terms.

Trade talks with third countries will begin soon and one point I have been making consistently, and for some time now, is that we must not allow our own high environmental and animal welfare standards to be undermined in any future trade agreements that the UK may enter into. I, therefore, want 2020 to be the year in which the new government moves ahead with the creating of a Trade and Standards Commission, which will be tasked with ensuring our high standards are upheld and respected in any future trade agreements with third countries.

2019 also saw the second stage of the Welsh Government’s consultation on the future of agricultural policy in Wales. The ‘Sustainable Farming and our Land’ consultation followed its 2018 predecessor, ‘Brexit and our Land’, and we were pleased to see these revised proposals including future support around the principle of sustainability. The union remains concerned, however, that the proposals suggest the continued supply of vital economic, social and cultural benefits provided by Welsh farming currently can be secured through what is, essentially, an agri-environment scheme. I’d like to once again thank all farmers and those living in our rural communities who responded to the consultation. We now wait for the Welsh Government to analyse the responses and bring forward the next stage of the process in 2020.

Sadly, as we welcome in the New Year, around 650 cattle farmers in Wales are affected by bovine TB restrictions and this, of course, has a significant knock-on effect on their business and family. NFU Cymru continues to lobby the Welsh Government to review its bovine TB eradication strategy and deliver a more holistic policy that tackles this disease across all its vectors. A peer-reviewed scientific report examining the effectiveness of badger culling in reducing outbreaks of TB in cattle has shown positive results in Gloucestershire and Somerset and we now look to Welsh Government to listen to the science and use all of the tools at its disposal to control the reservoir of disease in wildlife – not just through cattle controls. We also need the Welsh Government to look at the support for chronic herds in Wales and the massive impact long term breakdowns are having on these businesses.

On the dairy side, we look forward to a long-awaited consultation on statutory milk contracts. There are examples of good practice out there but what other industry would allow six weeks of payments in arrears and for processors to adjust prices at a whim? Of course, we want processors to have successful profitable businesses, but we need the same for our milk producers. After all, these are the people taking the price risk when product prices fall. This has to change as evidenced by the latest Welsh Government farm statistics when dairy farm income fell by a massive 43% in the year ending March 2019 compared to the previous 12 months. Statutory contracts will help bring back some stability which the sector needs right now.

Against the backdrop of Brexit uncertainty and low market returns, the threat of regulation continues to weigh heavily on farmers’ minds. Back in November 2018, the Welsh Government announced regulatory measures covering the whole of Wales to protect water quality from agricultural pollution coming into force in January 2020. From information provided by the Welsh Government in early 2019, it is clear the proposed new regulations are whole territory Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) with the NVZ Action Programme requirements applied across the whole of Wales.

The Minister, in December 2019, confirmed that she will be considering advice from officials in January on the introduction of agricultural regulations following further engagement. NFU Cymru categorically rejects any proposals which include the introduction of the Nitrates Directive and Nitrate Vulnerable Zones (NVZ) across the whole of Wales. This is based on the evidence which shows an all-Wales approach simply cannot be justified; that the existing NVZs in Wales have had limited effectiveness. The great harm an all-Wales NVZ will do to farm businesses and our rural communities, which greatly outweigh any benefits to water quality, cannot be justified. We are clear, an all-Wales NVZ approach is not evidence-based, proportionate or targeted and we continue to work tirelessly to emphasise to Welsh Government the devastating impacts that an all-Wales NVZ approach will have. We urge the Minister to recognise that poor regulation serves no one – not government, not society, not the farming industry or the environment – and work with us to develop the framework to support farmers to take action to improve water quality where this is needed.

2019 has also been a year when the glare of the media on Welsh and British farming has not been as balanced as we would expect. I have long said that, as an industry, we are not immune from critique and we relish the opportunity to stand up and promote our values and leading standards. What we do not and will not accept, however, is unbalanced reporting and false news pedalled by those with an agenda against farming. This year NFU Cymru has shown we tackle such behaviour through robust complaints and other means. Please be assured that we are prepared to escalate our actions accordingly if required.

There will no doubt be huge challenges facing our industry in 2020 and beyond. As an industry, we should all be very proud of the role we play and we must remain steadfast in our ambitions to continue to deliver for the people and communities of Wales. As an organisation, NFU Cymru is ambitious for Welsh food and farming. Politicians in both Cardiff and Westminster must commit to working with us to deliver our ambition for a productive, progressive and profitable farming sector that delivers for the whole of Wales

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Farming

Cattle prices exceed averages – and expectations

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BEEF cattle prices in England and Wales have hit the milestone of £4 per kilo, making this average the highest on record in a number of years.

The average deadweight price for steers for the week ending 24 April was 401.4p per kg which is 83p higher than this time last year and 67p above the five-year average.

Market prices at present are being influenced by a number of unique factors, including strong UK domestic retail demand, a lack of supply due to stockpiling in late-2020 ahead of the Brexit deadline, and changes in trade patterns caused by both Brexit and the Covid pandemic.

Whilst the impact of these factors on demand for beef in 2021 is unpredictable, newly released data from the British Cattle Movement Service (BCMS) suggests that no radical shift is likely in the supply of animals over the coming months.

During 2020, total calf registrations in GB were up marginally (0.5%) on 2019. In Wales, the figures show an increase of 1.4% in beef calf registrations, whilst dairy calf numbers increased by 3.2% on the year. For 2021 so far, beef calf registrations are currently trending 1.1% below last year.

Glesni Phillips is a Data Analyst at Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales (HCC). She said: “As we approach the peak calving period for spring calving herds in Wales, it is expected that BCMS monthly registration figures will increase over the coming months.

“However, the suckler cow herd in the UK has been retracting in recent years and currently, it shows no signs of re-building quickly. Prime heifer slaughterings during 2020 and the first quarter of this year, for instance, are higher than recent historic levels.

“These figures would suggest that supply onto the domestic UK market will likely remain tight for some time. Domestic retail figures for beef are strong, and with barbeque season coming up we should continue to see good demand  for good quality, locally produced beef.”

A more detailed analysis of the BCMS calf registrations data is available in HCC’s latest Market Bulletin on the HCC website.

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Farming

NVZ rules driving family farms out of business

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GLAMORGAN beef and sheep farmers Richard Walker and his partner Rachel Edwards run Flaxland Farm – a 120-acre beef and sheep holding just outside of Barry, Glamorgan. The couple say they will have to give up keeping cattle if current Water Resources (Control of Agricultural Pollution) (Wales) Regulations are not adjusted to incorporate recommendations made by industry stakeholder groups.

Richard and Rachel keep 35 breeding cows and 130 breeding ewes and are at the end of their tether.

“We’ve had a session with Farming Connect to see what we need to be doing, and it didn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know, apart from that we have enough ground to cope with how much slurry we produce. So we wouldn’t have to export. But we would have to cover one of the existing yards, which is an awkward shape, plus cover where we scrape slurry to, and also put in a slurry store. Which we don’t have at the moment,” said Rachel Edwards. 

“Judging on what the shed we had to put up recently has cost us, I don’t think we’ll have any change out of £50 thousand if we try to meet the requirements of the new regulations.  35 cows don’t bring in that sort of money. Where do you get that money from? And you still need to pay it back at the end if it’s borrowed. We’re looking at the kids probably still paying off what we’d spend. It would be far more stressful having to pay all that money back than getting rid of the cows. 

“These regulations are going to have a huge impact on our farm business. If nothing is done to amend or annul what we are facing now, I’ll have no choice but to get rid of the cattle. Trying to comply with these regulations is just going to be too expensive for us,” said Richard Walker.

Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs Lesley Griffiths announced the plans in a written statement in November last year, after which it became apparent that the majority of the plans had simply ‘been cut-and-pasted’ from the Nitrate Vulnerable Zone (NVZ) rules currently affecting just 2.4% of Wales.

While the Welsh Government announced in January that £11.5 funding would be made available to help farmers comply with the new rules – an allocation it had already announced previously in September 2020 – this represents just 3% of the £360 million the Welsh Government’s own impact assessment estimates the costs could be for Welsh farmers.

“There’s clearly nowhere near enough money to go around, and the total estimated bill is more than Wales’ annual farming budget.

“The margins are tight on lowland sucklers as it is. We’re looking at spending tens of thousands of pounds to comply. Is it really worth it?” adds Richard.

At Flaxland farm the muck gets spread on around 30 acres of fields in September when the fields are clear and it is left for a couple of months to rot down and go into the ground before being used as grazing for the new season lambs. 

“It saves us using artificial fertiliser. It’s organic fertilizer versus the artificial stuff which is £300 a tonne. We spread the slurry over winter, it helps the grass grow and we can turn the lambs and sheep out early. The spring lambs have fresh good grass and it hasn’t cost us a fortune in bagged fertiliser. 

“I look at what it does to my ground – new season lambs have lush green grass, a couple of inches tall and they rocket on it. We can produce 12 week old lambs ready for slaughter on grass and milk with no concentrate. Without it, the grass wouldn’t be as beneficial to the new season lambs as it is now. There would be a shortage of grass around February and March. The way we do things here works in rhythm with all the livestock and the environment. We also deal with the carbon footprint of our produce by selling our lambs locally to I.G. Nicholas butchers in Cowbridge, which means they have very few miles to travel from farm to plate,” said Richard.  

Being the third generation to farm the land, Richard says the farming system hasn’t changed much over the years and pollution here has never been an issue.

“I have had the cows all my life, my grandfather used to milk and they gave up milking in the 60s, and then we have had suckler cows ever since. The way we keep them hasn’t changed, back then it was open yards and they were fed on a concrete pad and whatever was left was scraped up and went out. It has never been an issue and we’ve never had a pollution incident here. The river near us has been tested many times and never comes back with any problems.

“I, like so many other farmers, take our responsibility to look after the environment, including our waters, very seriously. We have always been clear that one pollution incident is one too many and those who are guilty of polluting our rivers and watercourse should be held to account. Not many will argue with that. But to introduce these regulations across the whole of Wales, which goes against the recommendations the Welsh Government has received from their own task and finish group, beggars belief and will see many small and medium sized family farms go out of the cattle business,” he said.

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Farming

Small steps to improving pig fertility

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SIMPLE changes to pig management can result in significant improvements in fertility on units struggling with reproduction.

Factors influencing pig fertility are many and varied and can be due to infectious or non-infectious causes, says pig vet Dr Alex Thomsett, of The George Veterinary Group.

Non-infectious causes are often those that producers have more influences over and, in many cases, usually mean very simple changes, Dr Thomsett told farmers participating in a recent FarmingConnect webinar.

“A few small tweaks to management or the approach to reproduction on-farm can easily change a fairly difficult situation into a much better picture without going through a whole heap of blood sampling,’’ she said.

Among these is temperature stress; although this is more commonly associated with heat, cold can be a factor too.

Sows can find it difficult to adapt to changes in temperature and it can lead to more returns of service, poor cycling and higher numbers of abortions.

In outdoor herds, ensure pigs have mud wallows to dissipate heat and, to protect from direct sunlight, create shaded areas.

“This can be done very simply, with a few poles and a length of gale break or similar material,’’ Dr Thomsett advised.

Changes in day length can result in seasonal infertility in the autumn.

As this affects gilts, in particular, Dr Thomsett recommends selecting gilts that are early to go through puberty rather than those that are delayed.

Pigs need a minimum of 16 hours of daylight so ensure light exposure in housing is good – even cleaning whitewashed walls or lightbulbs can make a difference by better reflecting light at sow level on the back of the eye.

Light is more difficult to control in outdoor herds because this system is beholden to the time of the year and, for this reason, Dr Thomsett stressed that it was vital to get all the other issues around fertility working well, including nutrition.

Gilts need the right nutrition balance to prepare them to come into first service and to support them through the first service.

“Gilts and young females are still growing through their first pregnancy and it can often be forgotten that when a pig is lactating, her body is preparing for the next cycle’’, said Dr Thomsett.

In herds with longer lactation periods, Dr Thomsett suggests providing piglets with supplementary feeding to support the sow.

Mycotoxicosis is another consideration and can significantly interfere with herd fertility but Dr Thomsett said this is an unlikely cause if the farm has good quality sources of grain and straw.

Adding binders to feed is the best form of defence because these absorb harmful mycotoxins.

Vaccinations are an important tool for preventing infectious causes of infertility.

Ensure that the vaccination record of any bought-in stock is up to date and quarantine these animals, to ensure they are fit and healthy before entering the herd.

Carrying out a herd health check to establish health status and therefore which vaccinations are needed is greatly beneficial, said Dr Thomsett.

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