Farm animal numbers grow in Northern Ireland

Every major species of farm animal in Northern Ireland has increased in number over the past year, according to the latest farm census figures, despite the sustained pressure on farm gate prices.

According to the preliminary findings of the June 2015 Agricultural Census, released by Northern Irelands Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) on 27 August, the number of farmers in the province has remained static, while the number of livestock increased in every sector.

Total cattle numbers in June 2015 were 3% higher than in June 2014. The number of dairy cows increased by 6% to to 311,500 head, which is an all-time high. The number of beef cows increased by 2% to 260,300.

For sheep there was a 2% rise to 930,700 in the number of breeding ewes compared with 2014. Numbers have fluctuated in recent years, falling to a 20 year low of 876,000 in 2010 before rallying to 937,000 in 2012. Lamb numbers have increased by 4% aided by the increase in ewe numbers and good grazing conditions during the breeding season in autumn 2014, DARD said.

The pig industry is also expanding. Sow numbers increased by 5% compared with a year earlier to 37,900 with the overall pig herd 7% larger. All pig categories are showing increases but the growth in the number of fattening pigs has the biggest effect on total numbers.

For poultry, broiler numbers were up 5% in June, while laying birds numbers increased 8% during the year. This increase was largely due to the corporate decision by the main poultry processor in Northern Ireland, Moy Park, which is vertically integrated, to increase production.

Paul Caskie, agricultural economist at DARD told Meat Trades Journal the increase in livestock numbers was due to decisions taken by farmers several years ago when economic prospects were more favourable and farm gate prices were stronger.

Currently prices are depressed, he said. Although increased numbers reflect more activity and throughput, in actuality because farm gate prices are depressed, it is not having a positive impact on farmers incomes, he said.

These increased numbers are a result of decisions taken previously. But unfortunately now, when their plans have come to fruition, prices are soft and margins are tight, Caskie added.

Lamb prices in particular are under pressure at the moment, and the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU) said lamb prices in Northern Ireland are particularly low compared with the Republic and the rest of the UK. Last week lamb prices paid by NI processors fell by a further 10p/kg, said UFU beef and lamb policy chairman, Crosby Cleland.

Wesley Aston, UFU chief executive, told Meat Trades Journal the beef and sheep sectors were in for a difficult, but not impossible year, whereas dairy farmers were struggling so much with the low global price for milk there may be culls of dairy cows this winter if numbers become unaffordable. The whole sector was being aided by an EU funded 622m rural development grant, he added, to allow farmers to make capital investments up until 2020.

Pig farmers were in stronger position, said Aston, and prospects for pork prices were good because global supply is set to reduce over the coming year as China dramatically reduces its herd.

There was little change in the number of farmers compared with 2014. The statistics are compiled from a survey of farm businesses augmented by administrative data. The preliminary results were based on the first 9,000 returns and, while they should give an indication of the main trends, are liable to be amended in the light of returns received and processed later. Final results will be published in November 2015 by which time all returns from farmers will have been processed.

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