The increase in energy crop cultivation on grazing land is a major threat to the future of livestock farmers, the NFU conference was told.
Phil Abbott, a Derbyshire sheep farmer with a flock of 400 ewes, said people were paying £250/acre to rent land to grow maize on lowland grassland in his area – almost three times what he can afford to pay as a livestock farmer.
“It’s happening all over the country, it’s that self-propelled forage harvester that’s worrying me, the maize harvester,” he told a Livestock break-out session at the NFU conference on Tuesday (25 February).
“Why are they growing energy crops on our land? I’m losing parcels of land which are good lowland grassland areas where people are paying £250/acre to have maize growing on there.
“As a sheep farmer, I can’t afford to pay £250/acre for that land. That’s without the single farm payment. The farmer gets the SFP plus £250 an acre.”
Maize is an important feedstock for biogas production at AD sites across the UK, he added.
He said more farmers were being tempted to grow energy crops to make “easy money” and they are an increasing threat to traditional livestock farming.
More on this: Maize for AD plants a ‘major concern’, warns TFA
One farmer in his village recently sold his 160 cows and ploughed up all his grassland in preference for the “easier, more profitable option” of growing maize for AD plants.
“I wouldn’t like to farm in the hills, but fortunately they haven’t got four wheel drive forage harvesters that will go up there yet, so they don’t grow maize,” he added.
Mr Abbott said energy crops were also a threat to young entrants who enter farming by buying 50 ewes and slowly build their flock up.
“The land he’s renting to get up that ladder will become more valuable for an energy purpose other than livestock,” he added.
NFU livestock board chairman Charles Sercombe, a sheep farmer himself in Leicestershire, echoed Mr Abbott’s concerns.
“I couldn’t agree more. Competition for land use is one of the challenges we do have,” he said.
But Mr Sercombe stressed there were many opportunities for livestock farmers to use “vast tracts of land” in this country that are unsuitable for anything else other than producing livestock.
“We are in a market economy and the market will dictate the value of land. So we have to then put ourselves to develop businesses that can compete, if we want them to, with the value of the land there,” he said.