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Winter Feed For Farm Stock

Volume 373: debated on Friday 6 August 1976

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11.22 a.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that farmers in the worst hit drought areas are having to start feeding their stock with their winter feed and what steps they propose to take to see that adequate winter feed is available at prices which do not make a rise in the prices of meat and milk so severe as to put them out of reach of those in the lower income brackets.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government are aware that some farmers are hand-feeding their cattle and that this may deplete the supplies of winter fodder. It is too early yet to make a complete assessment, but, given reasonable weather and careful use of fodder by farmers, overall supplies for the winter should be adequate. There is no shortage of cereals and protein feeds. It is not possible to estimate at present the effect of the drought on either feed or food prices.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply. But would he not agree that the situation is deteriorating with every day that passes, and that the longer the drought continues the more feed the farmers are going to use, and not only for their cattle? Is the noble Lord aware that the foodstuffs which farmers are having to buy from the corn merchants are already rising in price at a terrific speed? Is he further aware that if this situation continues farmers will have either to sell their stock or to charge prices which will rocket?

My Lords, fodder supplies still appear to be adequate in many parts of the country, but there are shortages in parts of the South-East, the South-West and the East of England and in Wales, particularly in the South. The situation could be completely changed by rain as there is still plenty of time for considerable grass growth and conservation. With regard to prices of hay, these are now lower than last year. They vary between £30 and £41 according to area, compared with £40 to £55 in July 1975. This indicates that at this time the demand for hay is not so great as it was last year and that farmers in the South can buy from other parts of the country, although I appreciate that there are no grounds for complacency.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, while everybody must have absolute and complete sympathy with the purpose of the question, it is a little odd for a Conservative to advocate a policy which involves a rising Government expenditure at a time when the Conservative Party are demanding cuts in Government expenditure, when they are demanding cuts in subsidies and when it is their philosophy in terms of what they say but not in terms of what they do, that individuals should stand on their own feet? The purpose behind the Question, with which everybody must have sympathy, is that they are advocating that the Government should take over the functions of God.

My Lords, I am sure that there is a great deal in what my noble friend says. I am also sure that noble Lords in all parts of the House will agree that the weather at least is not the fault of the Government.

My Lords, are Her Majesty's Government taking any steps to deal with what could happen if the abnormal drought this year in the Southern part of the country were to become the normal drought of future years?

My Lords, the Government are keeping this matter under review. The position is that if there is no rain, problems may arise in the late winter and early spring of next year. Winter feeding has started prematurely, as the noble Lord, Lord de Clifford, said; but if we have a short, mild winter the effect should be the same as a long, hard winter in terms of the amount of fodder used.

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree that the practice of burning off stubbles and the loss of straw bears upon this problem? Could the noble Lord suggest to his colleagues that a proper use of some of the money already allocated to research in agricultural fields should be directed towards examining the method used in Norway for the treatment of white straw to break down the cellulose by lye or caustic soda which turns it into a winter feed? There would therefore be a means of bolstering our stocks in this way.

My Lords, we shall certainly bear in mind what the noble Lord has said and I shall pass on his comments to my right honourable friend. I may say that the Department's advisory service have again advised farmers to conserve straw instead of burning it and that supplies should be adequate.