Comment: Decent incomes for farmers have to be at the heart of sustainable agriculture policy

Davie Gordon and Lar Halley keep an eye on the cattle prices in Kilkenny Mart. Photo Roger Jones.
Davie Gordon and Lar Halley keep an eye on the cattle prices in Kilkenny Mart. Photo Roger Jones.

John Heney

As the dust settles on this year's Ploughing we find ourselves approaching the end of a very challenging year with unfortunately far too many empty spaces remaining in silage pits and barns up and down the country.

While the recent spell of dry weather has been a great help and I have some nice aftergrass coming on after my second cut, my hoped-for surge in late summer growth has not really materialised.

I probably have only myself to blame as I don't use fertiliser on my grazing ground and neither do I use concentrates to finish my cattle.

Perhaps I should explain how I came to adopt this low cost/low input grass based production system in the first place.

When I first took over running the family farm, I like most farmers did the usual soil tests and started applying the recommended amount of fertilisers as well as established a 21-day rotational paddock system.

However, after a few years I began to notice that in spite of my increased output my income remained very static.

I started to do a few sums and I discovered that there appeared to be no crock of gold waiting at the end of the more intensive farming rainbow - in my case the increase in output simply did not justify the extra cost.

I then started feeding meal to help finish my cattle on grass but after a few years I stopped and surprise, surprise I saw very little difference except that I had no expensive feed bills to pay and neither did I have to compromise my GM-free stance.

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Of course, all farms are different and luckily for me I had eventually realised that I had a farm which could fatten cattle without the use of expensive meal.

So how have I coped with the dry summer?

As my land is quite dry and needs a lot of rain, this year's record period of drought was always going to be a real test of my low cost finishing system.

Thankfully, fat scores continue to hold up well but that's where the good news ends.

As well as falling factory prices I am experiencing an ongoing reduction of about 10kg per head in carcass weights and a huge decline in conformation grades.

Both issues can be directly attributed to this year's disastrous spring and summer weather.

Speaking of poor factory grades, I found it interesting to read reports that one of our major dairy farming organisations has published research showing that declining factory grades cost farmers over €32m in 2017.

While reports such as this help greatly to highlight the issue of declining grades, more cynical observers might suggest that if these farming organisations stopped actively encouraging their members to continue down the Holstein/Jersey route they may not have quite as much to complain about when it comes to grading.

Strangely it appears that unusual forms of logic are not the sole preserve of our farming organisations.

Sustainable farming

Take for example the comments of our own EU Commissioner, Phil Hogan when he spoke to a large gathering of cattle farmers at the recent ICSA 25th Anniversary Dinner.

I felt he appeared to adopt a very selective approach to the issue of sustainable farming.

Of course we all support the concept of sustainable farming and protecting the environment.

However the Commissioner didn't address ongoing Teagasc farm income research which shows that cattle farmers are increasingly being obliged to seek off-farm employment in order to literally put bread on the table.

To me logic would demand that sustainable farming should not simply mean employing sustainable environment practices, it should also mean providing a farmer with a sustainable income to live on.

Sadly with little hope of this happening, our young people are increasingly turning their backs on cattle farming as a career and looking elsewhere to earn a decent income.

Perhaps the Commissioner would like to tell us who he feels will run these so called sustainable cattle farms in the future?

John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary

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