Livestock and dairy farmers across northern Europe are paying soaring prices for straw used in food and bedding for cattle, as hot, dry weather across the region reduces crops.
The higher bills put further pressure on farmers already facing one of their toughest summers ever; many have had to purchase more hay for fodder because the grass on which their herds normally graze has not grown.
Some predict thousands of euros in extra costs even for a relatively small herd, leading to an overall loss for the year.
“If you look at the price of fodder and straw I would be fairly confident that this year we will lose money (on cattle),” said David Barton, who farms in the normally lush Cotswolds in central England.
The wheat straw that would usually cost €39 a tonne is nearly €111, and Barton will have to pay around €89 a day to feed his 173 cattle as there is no grass left.
Barton estimates extra spending of around €7,800 over three months. The largest cost, however, will be the loss of meat production as his cattle will not put on as much weight.
“They have sufficient food but for them to really grow (as much as in a normal year) they need grass and currently we don’t have any. The loss of production will be significant,” he said.
The straw shortages are part of a broader problem of reduced grain crops across Europe and other key producing regions, amid high temperatures and low rainfall.
In Germany, straw crops have wilted under a combination of drought and the highest July temperatures since 1881, with shorter stalks reducing straw crops yields by 20 to 40 percent in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein.
“We are lacking an enormous amount of straw, both for feed and bedding,” said Peter Levsen Johannsen, CEO of the chamber of agriculture in Schleswig-Holstein.
“There are regions in which straw is already more expensive than grain,” he added, noting straw prices in north Germany have doubled compared with last year.
Grain for human consumption can typically cost four to five times more than straw, though the relationship varies.
Analysts said that rising input costs could lead to higher store prices. However, retailers are more willing to raise prices for some products than others.
John Lancaster, head of EU dairy consulting at INTL FCStone, said retailers, for example, like to keep liquid milk prices stable but may raise them for butter or cheese.
In Denmark, dry weather and heat mean the straw harvest is likely to be about half normal years, said Troels Toft, crops director at Danish farming association DAFC.
“Prices have about doubled to around 120 to 150 euros a tonne in some areas,” he said. “But demand is very high and Danish farmers are seeking to gather every bit of straw they can; nothing is being left on the fields this year.”
In Sweden, the heat wave and drought are also expected to cut the grain crop to the smallest in 25 years.
“We have parts of Sweden that have lacked rain for the last 90 days,” said Kristina Gustafsson, director of the feed unit at giant Swedish farm cooperative Lantmannen. “We have farmers that have a total lack of roughage (feed fiber).”
The European Drought Observatory warned last month that a relatively “short but intense” dry spell has affected central and northern Europe since May 2018. In addition to fire hazards and water disruption, it expressed concerns for agricultural production, primarily cereals and hay.
The European Commission decided last week to grant EU farmers more flexibility in implementing the green requirements in order to face alarming droughts across Europe.
The EU vegetable sector has also been severely affected, according to the European Association of Fruit and Vegetable Processors (PROFEL).
“With the hot and dry weather continuing throughout July across most parts of the continent, vegetables have continued to suffer and crop yields have fallen sharply. Today the situation for vegetable growers and processors is the most serious that has been experienced in the last forty years,” the association said in a statement.