21 September 2001


By Michael Williams

WHEN there is the prospect of difficult times ahead, capital spending is the first to face the axe. So when foot-and-mouth was confirmed in Northern Ireland in early March, and a case emerged in the Republic, it had an immediate and devastating effect on the whole of the farming industry.

Spending on machinery, says Mike Moroney, chief executive of the Farm Tractor & Machinery Trade Association, came to a sudden stop.

Although the disease was soon under control, it took much longer for farmers to regain their confidence and begin investing again. Demand was very strong before the outbreaks started, but it took the whole of April and most of May before real recovery was seen.

"Things are back to normal now. Farmers are investing again and there is a good demand for most types of equipment," says Mr Moroney. "The situation is helped by the national economy, which is very strong, and the new manufacturing industries which are creating a labour shortage."

A lot of the investment going into tractors and machinery is to compensate for the shortage of labour. A good example of that is robot milking parlours.

"I dont think there was a robot parlour in the whole of Ireland four years ago, but they are certainly being installed now," Mr Moroney comments. "There could be as many as a dozen of them now, and most were probably bought to solve a labour problem."

For jobs which are less easily mechanised, including mushroom harvesting and some types of vegetable production, growers are increasingly dependant on labour from eastern Europe to fill the vacancies, he says.

Another factor encouraging some farmers to invest in new machinery is the strength of some of the new manufacturing industries such as computers and pharmaceuticals. Ireland, like Germany, has a large number of part-time farmers, and the pay packets of those with well-paid jobs in the new industries can help pay for new equipment to make it easier to run the farm on a part-time basis.

One result of the labour shortage facing Irish farmers has been a big increase in sales of loader wagons to bring in the silage crop. Pottinger, the top selling make, is imported by Traynors of Clonmel, Co Tipperary.

Sales during most of the 1990s totalled one or two machines a year but for last years silage season, numbers jumped to 13 machines. The company has delivered 54 new loader wagons for this years silage crop.

All but three of these machines have been sold to farmers in the Republic, says Traynors marketing manager, David Osborne. And in a high proportion of cases it was a labour shortage that persuaded farmers to make the investment.

"The big advantage of a loader wagon is that it can operate as a genuine one-man system with a high work rate, and that can be very attractive on farms that are short of labour," he explains. "With the construction boom creating a lot of jobs, anyone who drives a tractor can probably earn more money driving a dumper truck on a building site, and in many cases that is exactly what is happening."

Labour problems affect a lot of farmers, he adds, and they are an important factor in the strength of the farm equipment business. Farmers are buying tractors and machinery to save labour, and some dealers are having the best year for sales they can remember, he believes.

The strong demand is not just for new equipment. Irish buyers are also prominent at the monthly auction sales of used tractors and machinery organised by Cheffins, the Cambridge based auctioneers. The sales are the biggest of their kind in Europe, with between 400 and 500 used tractors plus large numbers of machines of all types going under the hammer each month.

Overseas customers from as far afield as Malaysia and the United States buy an estimated 50% of the tractors changing hands each month. But the Irish are easily the biggest buyers, accounting for more than half the total export sales.

Two of this years auctions were cancelled during the worst of the foot-and-mouth epidemic in the UK. But since sales were resumed, Irish buyers have been back in strength, says auctioneer Bob Hall.

"It used to be the smaller, cheaper tractors that attracted them, but that was quite a few years ago, and things have changed," he said. "These days they buy in the medium to top price range, and the same applies to the machinery they buy. They look for quality and they pay good money for what they want." &#42

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