Census figures from June 2016, and released later in the year by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, show that the number of farmers working in Northern Ireland has dropped by 2% to 29,500.
The figures also show that, despite the current milk pricing crisis hitting Northern Ireland, the number of milk producing dairy cattle is at an all-time high of 317,100, representing an increase of 2%.
So, how can the decrease in the number of farmers be linked to the increase in cattle numbers?
Fluctuating milk prices
Two or three years before this census, milk prices were much higher than now. This led to dairy farmers increasing the number of heifers in their herds and these subsequently joined the dairy herds once they had calved.
Milk prices have dropped since then but dairy farmers are having to hold on to older stock, that they would otherwise perhaps have culled, in order to try and make up the price difference by producing more milk. Farms, like any other commercial venture, need to keep the cash flowing to remain in business.
The drop in milk prices has meant that farmers have had to look at their costs, and very often this has resulted in them paying off any farm workers they employed. This has obviously resulted in a reduction of the number of agricultural workers, falling by 1% to 47,400. Within that overall figure, are the farmers themselves, whether classing themselves as full-time or part-time.
In fact, full-time and part-time farmer numbers have dropped by 2%. This figure shows that farmers are leaving the industry, and this in some significant measure, indicates that they are unable to make a living from the industry.
Voluntary Supply Incentive
Fair Pricing Farming NI chairman, Charlie Wier, suggested that the number of people leaving farming in 2017 could continue to rise. He also went on to say that the milk over-supply problem was a trend right across the EU, which was being addressed by the Voluntary Supply Incentive announced by EU Farm Commissioner, Phil Hogan. Mr Wier has urged hard-pressed dairy farmers to take advantage of this incentive scheme. 150 million euros was set aside for incentive payments to be made to farmers in return for reducing their milk production.
Farming, an industry like no other, shows that an increase in livestock numbers and an increase in production does not always signal a rise in profits for the farmers. In this case, quite the reverse.
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