‘Unprecedented’ straw shortage is a concern for livestock farmers

Farmer James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

Farmer James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

Archant 2018

An “unprecedented” shortage of straw has compounded problems for livestock farmers during a rainy start to spring – and they have been urged to plan ahead now to secure supplies from the coming harvest.

Farmer James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian BurtFarmer James Runciman with some of his cattle at Croxton Farm. Picture: Ian Burt

The shortfall has been attributed to factors including last year’s late harvest and wet autumn which affected quality and made it difficult to bale straw, pushing prices up to around twice the levels of a year ago.

James Runciman, who has a 350-head herd of pedigree Aberdeen Angus and Simmental cattle at Croxton near Fakenham, is a member of the National Farmers’ Union’s regional livestock board.

He said with grass growing slowly in the cold weather and the risk of animals damaging sodden grazing ground, cattle have stayed in their winter sheds for longer, putting extra pressure on bedding supplies and sending prices soaring to as much as £140 per tonne.

“Most of it has been bad planning from farmers,” he said. “They relied on picking up the phone and saying: ‘I need it next week’, rather than pre-harvest saying: ‘This is what I am going to need’.

Straw bales near Brancaster Staithe. Picture: iWitness / Richard BruntonStraw bales near Brancaster Staithe. Picture: iWitness / Richard Brunton

“It is all about risk management. Now is the time to talk to your straw merchant so he can talk to the arable farmers to get the wheels in motion now, rather than waiting until it is too late.”

Mike Giffen, general manager of straw merchant AF Biomass, part of the AF (Anglia Farmers) Group, said: “This season has seen the perfect storm of events to create an unprecedented shortage of straw. It started way back in June last year with hot, dry, weather prematurely ripening crops and reducing yields. We then had a wet harvest with straw lying for weeks waiting to be baled and many farmers who had intended to sell straw switching on the combine choppers.

“So, we had much higher demand from livestock farmers and it has been impossible to meet demand.

“So where does that leave us for the coming season? The last thing we needed was a cold wet spring delaying turn out for livestock farmers. The barns will be empty as we go into harvest. Of course, spring planting has been delayed as well so we will have ‘cuckoo corn’ and winter crops now moving rapidly through the growth stages.

“It really is too early to say if yield will be impacted, as it will be very dependent on the weather in the coming weeks. We’ll be hoping for sunshine and showers followed by a nice, dry harvest.”

While continued demand from straw-fired power plants, such as the one at Snetterton, has had an effect on straw availability, Mr Giffen said some energy companies had mitigated this by signing contracts for woodchip.

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