EU migrant labour down 26% in NI since Brexit vote
Several agri-food business leaders have written to the prime minister Theresa May to highlight concerns about the availability of labour in NI.

The number of migrant workers in Northern Ireland (NI) from countries within the EU’s Single Market has fallen by 26% since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.

Leaders from 21 business organisations in NI, including several from the agri-food industry, have written to prime minister Theresa May to highlight their concerns about the availability of labour.

Uncertainty

“A combination of exchange rate movements and the uncertainty facing migrants to the UK, has meant that fewer EEA workers are coming to Northern Ireland and more are leaving,” the letter reads.

Signatories of the letter include Ulster Farmers’ Union president Ivor Ferguson, NI Meat Exporters’ Association chief executive Conall Donnelly, NI Food and Drink Association chair Brian Irwin and NI Grain Trade Association chief executive Robin Irvine.

The first signatory listed is Confederation of British Industry (NI) chair and Fane Valley chief executive Trevor Lockhart.

NI solutions

The letter states that with a tight labour market in NI, there is a risk that companies operating on both sides of the Irish border will switch their focus to facilities in the Republic of Ireland.

The letter states that local industries have continually raised concerns over the past 12 months

The business organisations have asked the prime minister that solutions to the problem have NI flexibility to reflect differences in lower average regional salaries in NI compared with the rest of the UK.

The letter states that local industries have continually raised concerns with both the migration advisory committee and the UK government for the past 12 months.

“At no stage in the last year, have we received any indication that here has been serious consideration given to the solutions required to address our concerns,” the business organisations said.

“We are appealing for your support to deliver solutions to this worsening problem,” the letter to Theresa May reads.

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Positive mood among NI dairy farmers at Winter Fair
Milk prices, production costs, weather, bovine TB and Brexit were talking points for Northern Ireland dairy farmers at the 2018 Winter Fair, writes Peter McCann.

The 2018 RUAS Winter Fair held at Balmoral Park on Thursday was my fourth show meeting and greeting farmers on the Irish Farmers Journal stand in the main Eikon Exhibition Centre.

Morale was rock bottom at the event in 2015 after a year of low milk prices and no lift in sight.

By the end of 2016, things had eventually begun to turn a corner and the one-day dairy event had a more optimistic mood. Last year’s event followed a strong milk price year, but weather-wise it was a shocker.

Dairy farmers have enjoyed another year of strong milk prices in 2018, although with some cuts already announced, most are bracing themselves for lower base prices in the coming months.

Higher costs are being factored in too and, with a 20% increase in meal prices alone over the past 12 months, farmers recognise that margins will come under pressure much quicker if a dip does come.

Golden year

Weather during the summer and autumn of 2018 for farmers in northern and western parts has been the best in living memory. It will be remembered as a golden year for grazing, silage, drainage and reseeding.

Parts of Co Down were significantly affected by the drought and fodder stocks on some farms could be tight. However, steps to bridge gaps have been taken and there should be surplus fodder in other parts if some reach the back wall before the spring.

One constant issue throughout the past four Winter Fairs has been bovine TB. Incidence rates across NI have creeped up throughout 2018 again and the pressure it puts on farmers, both financially and mentally, cannot be overstated.

B-word

Views on Brexit are as diverse among NI dairy farmers as they are in the House of Commons. When it was mentioned on Thursday (it often wasn’t), I heard everything from “it should never have happened in the first place” to “we need to walk away without a deal”.

Was the word Brexit even known at my first Winter Fair in December 2015? In hindsight, they seem simpler times.

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Weak beef trade impacts mart prices
There has been a noticeable easing in cattle prices in the live trade, as buying demand weakens.

Downward price pressure currently facing the beef trade has filtered through to livestock marts across the country, with average prices easing by 10p/kg to 15p/kg on previous weeks.

On a 550kg store animal, this reduces the sale value by £55 to £83/head.

Based on Irish Farmers Journal MartWatch data, the average price paid on U-grading steers weighing 500-600kg was 196p/kg over the past week, down from 207p/kg in late November.

Prices on average-quality, R-grading animals was 173p/kg, down 17p/kg on previous weeks.

Store heifers weighing 400-500kg fell 10p/kg to 191p/kg for U-grading types, with R-grading animals down 16p/kg to an average of 167p/kg.

Weaker demand

With factory prices under pressure and delays in getting cattle slaughtered, mart managers maintain that feedlots are still carrying large numbers of cattle purchased earlier this autumn.

Therefore, until these animals can be offloaded, finishers are reluctant to buy in additional cattle for feeding.

Smaller numbers

Mart managers also indicate that recent sales are much smaller in size. While it is normal for cattle numbers to tail off towards the end of the year, indications are that farmers are holding cattle until the new year in the hope of improved buying demand.

Base quotes on U3 cattle have slipped by 4p/kg to 6p/kg this week, with most plants quoting 340p/kg. With cattle supply running ahead of demand, factory agents indicate they have adequate numbers booked for next week and over the Christmas period.

EU beef prices

During November, R3 heifer prices paid by NI plants were the fifth highest across EU member states at an average of 356.9p/kg, significantly higher than the EU average of 339.5p/kg. Britain paid the highest heifer price of 370.6p/kg, although so far in December prices have dipped below top prices in Italy.

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Lakeland cuts October milk price
Lakeland Dairies is the first processor to set an NI milk price for November, with a cut to its base price.

Lakeland Dairies has announced a 1p/l price cut to its November milk price, bringing it to a base of 26.5p/l.

The Cavan-based processor is the first milk buyer to declare a price for November. At 26.5p/l, it takes Lakeland to the same base price offered for October milk by prospective merger partner LacPatrick. It is due to declare a November price next Tuesday, and is expected to sit around the 26p/l to 26.5p/l mark.

On top of the outlined base price, Lakeland will pay its traditional winter bonus of 3p/l on all milk delivered during November and December. This means the co-op’s suppliers are effectively on a base of 29.5p/l. From January to November, this brings Lakeland to an average base price of 27.55p/l, putting it marginally ahead of the 27.41p/l base paid over the same period in 2017.

Meanwhile, the latest DAERA statistics show that the average farmgate milk price paid to NI dairy farmers in October was 29.92p/l.

The October price is 0.61p/l higher than September, but significantly lower than the 32.87p/l paid during the corresponding month last year.

The annual price difference works out at £2,124 for a 1m-litre producer supplying 72,000l during October.

While milk buyers continue to point to a downward correction in prices in the months ahead, there has been a second successive increase in the Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) milk price indicator, which now sits at 27.47p/l.

The UFU points to improving market prices for skim and whole milk powder on the weekly Dutch Dairy Board (DDB) auctions and a positive outcome at last week’s GDT auction.

Exchange rates have also moved in favour of UK exporters. At this week’s DDB auction, skim prices were up €40/t to €1,700/t, their highest point of the year. Whole milk powder also increased by €30/t to €2,700/t. However, butter prices fell by €20/t to €4,140/t.

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