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Tuesday 6 December 2016

Beef: 'Trophy husband' material and hobby farming - is this the future for beef men?

John Heney

Published 13/07/2016 | 02:30

William Blackburne, Ballindangan, Jerome Quane, Kilworth, Adrien Vaillant, French Student, John Kiersey, Kilworth & Michael Leamy, Ballyduff are pictured at a Teagasc dairy farm walk at Michael Gowen's, Downing, Kilworth, Co Cork on 'Managing Through 2016'. Photo O'Gorman Photography.
William Blackburne, Ballindangan, Jerome Quane, Kilworth, Adrien Vaillant, French Student, John Kiersey, Kilworth & Michael Leamy, Ballyduff are pictured at a Teagasc dairy farm walk at Michael Gowen's, Downing, Kilworth, Co Cork on 'Managing Through 2016'. Photo O'Gorman Photography.

The last few weeks have shown us once again that beef farming is certainly not for the faint-hearted. As the UK struggles to figure out whether it has returned to the halcyon days of glorious empire or simply thrown its favourite toy out of the pram in a moment of childish petulance, the time has come for the rest of the EU including ourselves to plot the way forward.

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As usual it is the cattle sector which is the most vulnerable to these sudden shocks so it's no surprise that the Brexit vote caused a sudden drop in the price of beef. Neither does it come as a surprise that cattle farmers are once again left to fend for themselves.

Emergency EU funding is invariably focused on other farming sectors. So not alone does the cattle sector now have to cope with falling farm gate prices, but we are also experiencing decreases in EU beef supports.

If the cattle sector ever needed help, it is now, so the timing of the Teagasc Beef 2016 Open Day could not have been better. It was therefore with a great deal of hope and expectation that I set off for Grange.

I must say that for me, the tone for the whole day was set by the emphasis which the many speakers placed on putting farm efficiency before farm output. This practical approach was very refreshing especially as were shown the reality of how even a very well run 100ac beef enterprise will return little more than the national minimum wage.

Low incomes in the cattle sector were in fact the real elephant in the room at Grange and the figures beg the question as to what cattle farming is really about.

Is it a hobby or is it simply driven by some strange form of old fashioned pride? We have all heard of trophy wives, but I recently heard of young cattle farmers being eyed up as 'trophy husband' material for young women with large salaries wishing to marry into a supposedly idyllic rural lifestyle.

Another aspect of Beef 2016 which I also found interesting was the apparent conflict between the growing intensification of cattle farming and the increasing emphasis in Brussels on biodiversity and sustainability.

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It is difficult to rationalise the growing importance which is being placed on traditional species-rich grassland with the huge emphasis which is currently being placed on reseeding pastures.

However what I found to be the most interesting of all was the stand dealing with eating quality.

Research has shown that the usual issues of age, breed and type of feed have little effect on the eating quality of beef. It's simply all about "finish" and the meat being properly marbled with fat. This is something which is totally within a farmer's control; unfortunately we are currently being punished by a ridiculous set of nonsensical criteria. I suppose I shouldn't be that surprised as there is really very little which makes any sense in beef farming

Back on my farm, after a slow start to the year, summer growing conditions have been good even if the recent drop in temperature has slowed things down a bit.

The reality is that grass has always been and remains the most important feed on Irish farms. It follows therefore that weather conditions which facilitate grass growth are quite rightly always uppermost in our minds.

It's a case of so far so good as I continue to introduce sections of after-grass to supplement my paddock system when needed. The cattle which left the shed last are now thriving well, but managing grass is an ongoing process and it's amazing how quickly grass supply can change from week to week

While my low input system means that I don't have to contend as much with growth getting out of control, it does make ensuring that my grass supply doesn't run low somewhat more challenging The area stopped for second cut silage is now starting to look better and hopefully it will go some way in compensating for the light first cut, otherwise I will have to re-assess the situation.

While my oldest group of my cattle are doing ok, it is still too early to know when they will be fit to sell. I am concerned that they look a bit plainer than the next oldest group. However, I suppose I'll have to wait for the factory sheets to tell me whether I am right or wrong.

Selling date is another factor which has a huge impact on grass supply for the latter part of the year and will dictate my ongoing grazing pattern going into the autumn.

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

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