Business Farming

Tuesday 16 September 2014

No need to feel swamped if you are farming on wet land

John Shirley

Published 26/06/2013 | 05:00

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Irish Grasslands Association Beef conference at the McWilliam Hotel, Claremorris and Farm Walk on the farm of Michael Mellett of Shrule.

THE Irish Grassland Association (IGA) travelled west for their summer beef conference and farm visit. As usual, they came up with some gems.

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Michael Mellett, the host beef farmer, I'd met before. My belief he is a perfectionist hasn't changed after last week's visit – more on this later.

The IGA conference speaker on drainage, James O'Loughlin, was new to me. His enthusiasm and knowledge of drainage reminded me of the late great John Mulqueen – scientist and champion to those farming wet land.

In recent years, Teagasc had cavalierly ignored wetland farming but a couple of weather washouts has jolted the organisation back to reality. Mr O'Loughlin and a couple of colleagues are working to fill the knowledge gaps in this area.

Up to 2009, Mr O'Loughlin managed the Teagasc wetland dairy farm at Kilmaley, Co Clare. Teagasc, in their wisdom, closed the research in this most challenging of wet soil farms.

Instead, they have brought in their 'Heavy Soils Programme' where Mr O'Loughlin is working closely with eight dairy farmers across Munster who are farming on heavy soils. These are at Rossmore and Solohead in Tipperary, Boherbue and Macroom in Cork, Castleisland and Listowel in Kerry, Athea in Limerick and Doonbeg in Clare.

The rainfall in Oakpark Carlow in 2012 was 840mm and locals thought it was bad. Some of the farms monitored last year by Mr O'Loughlin had almost double Oakpark's total, he told the I(GA conference at the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris, Co Mayo.

Last year will forever be etched in memories as an awful 12 months for Irish livestock farmers, but it was the occupiers of poorly drained soils that suffered the brunt of the hardship and setbacks. Mr O'Loughlin gave data for 2012 versus 2011 collected from his monitor farms:

* Grass grown down 26pc from 10.6t to 7.8t dry matter per hectare;

* Grass utilised down 33pc from 8.1t to 5.4t DM per ha;

* Pasture ryegrass content down 28pc to 17pc;

* Soil potash and phosphate levels down 28pc and 25pc.

All of these setbacks culminated in a 47pc collapse in the farm incomes.

In light of the struggles of livestock farming on wet land and the high drainage costs, I asked Mr O'Loughlin if they should give up and plant trees.

"Certainly not," he answered. "Thirty per cent of Irish milk is produced off wet land. Much of this is in the southwest of the country.

"These dairy farmers are technically very good. They are often well set up with paddocks, roadways, good buildings and milking parlours. All of these help the farmer to succeed on poorly drained soils," he explained.

"However, they must plan for years like 2012. This means reducing stocking rate to two livestock units per hectare. It means establishing a silage reserve of three big bales per cow and managing the farm to minimise pasture poaching."

The Teagasc man quoted costs from €2,500 to €3,500/ac for drainage. He said drainage was very site specific and that before embarking on heavy drainage investment, he advised farmers to clean watercourses and check existing drains for blockages.

Many of the earlier drainage jobs were good but are now choked up, he explained. "Technically anywhere can be drained, but some cases make no economic sense. Use the wetter parts of the farm for silage. Use low ground pressure machinery."

When asked about advantages from grazing smaller cows on wet land, Mr O'Loughlin said the poaching risk was just high with smaller cows as their smaller feet have the same ground pressure as a larger cow.

Irish Independent

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