DAIRY farmers across Clare are hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst as peak milk production coincides with the predicted spike in the Covid-19 crisis.
In recent days, milk suppliers have been warned by Dairy Industry Ireland (DII) that if the Coronavirus causes the closure of processing plants the impact for the sector could be devastating. Responding to the stark warning, Martin McMahon, Clare Chairperson of ICMSA, said the situation was as major cause for concern. “If any of the milk plants are hit by the virus, and the risk is very real, that would present huge problems for farmers at this time of the year,” he said. “All possible precautions must be taken to protect lorry men and the staff at the dairy plants, for the sake of their own health and for the whole sector. If farmers were forced to reduce their milk volumes, the pressure would be huge. All famers, whether they’re in dairy or beef are under major strain because of the crisis, as it is.”
Doonbeg farmer Danny Bermingham said that the virus presented a range of challenges from concerns about support for any farmer who came down with Covid-19, to concerns about the prospect of limiting production.
“God forbid that the plants would be affected,” he said. “We are at peak milk yield at the moment and curtailing that would be unthinkable, so we’re sticking strictly to all of the hygiene measures and restrictions. The weather in early Spring was very bad, but the better conditions have given a bit of hope and optimism, so we’re trying to focus on that.”
Scariff-based dairy farmer Brian Geoghegan told The Champion he also feels the implications of the Coronavirus could be huge: “The situation is very worrying. We’re in the busiest months of the year. It’s the cheapest time of the year to produce milk and it would be very hard to have to curtail production. It is a prospect that we really don’t want to have to face.” Mr Geoghegan added that options being explored on private storage might help. Last month, Agriculture Minister Michael Creed asked the European Commission to make Private Storage Aid (PSA) support available. That enables companies to store specific dairy products for a period of time, subsidised by the Commission, and supporting price levels for farmers. “It would be a good tool and give a bit of certainty to farmers,” he said.
On the issue of milk prices, Mr McMahon said the sector had not yet seen the same pressure experienced in the beef sector. “Things are fairly okay. We are really hoping that that will keep going because this is such a worrying time. The Department have given us some reprieve with the move to allow farmers to keep dairy calves to to 120 days and the move to allow some trade at marts is a positive.”
Issues about work load were also cited by the ICMSA county chairperson who urged farmers to remember their own health and safety at this time. In a time social distancing, additional support on the farm is a particular for many. Mr Bermingham said that in the event of a farmer coming down with coronavirus at the peak of the season for dairying, contingency supports were needed: “I have had to let go of a student on placement so that puts more work one me. I would be in a very serious situation if I couldn’t work due to Coronavirus. Contractors can still come in, of course, and we are very conscious of hand-washing and social distancing for everyone’s good.”
Mr Geoghan said that social distancing could be incorporated easily into farming. “The only thing is you can’t go for a pint at the weekend, but we’ll live with that.”