John Heney: 'Policy-makers are fixated on high-input and high-risk beef production'

Cattle unloaded by farmer. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Cattle unloaded by farmer. Picture; Gerry Mooney
Stock image.

John Heney

In spite of some extreme variations in temperature this spring, the fact that first-cut silage is coming in so early highlights how good the weather has been.

I had planned to cut silage around the last week in May. Instead, I was covering my pit of first-cut silage on May 14. Having been cut on a warm breezy morning and left to wilt for 24 hours, quality appears to be very good, with little or no run-off.

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But while it looked quite heavy when I walked it a few days beforehand, quantity was a bit disappointing.

This means that I must start preparing for a good second cut as I was planning to get my cattle housed a little earlier next winter.

With this in mind I got slurry out straight away on the land which I've stopped for a second cut.

My cattle appear to be doing well on the early summer grass. With early growth so strong I had to leave cattle a day or so extra in each paddock during the first round of grazing.

This had the welcome benefit of ensuring a good supply of grass for the second round of grazing.

I remain disappointed with the conformation of my first (oldest) bunch of cattle.

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However, something which I've started to notice over the last few years is that my second lot of cattle invariably appeared to have far better conformation than their older counterparts. I'm at a total loss to understand why!

Looking at the bigger picture, it's great to read of proposals to encourage people in the dairy sector to take more care in deciding on the type of calves they produce.

Beef finishers have been highlighting this issue for decades but no-one wanted to listen.

Even the Goodman family appear to be having their say, but in the meantime spokespersons from both the suckler and dairy sectors have become quite vocal on how the calves they produce are eventually treated at the meat plants.

Suckler farmer representatives claim that the factory price for Friesian-type cattle should be further reduced in relation to the price given for beef breed cattle, while dairy spokespersons argue vehemently that dairy bred beef is being unfairly graded and marked down in price.

At the end of the day does it really matter as farm income research shows that no matter what breed of animal we fatten we're all going down in the same boat?

While sound advice from whatever source is always welcome, as a cattle farmer I could not but notice the increasing number of online articles promoting the intensification of beef cattle production.

While the old adage warns us that 'when in a hole stop digging' - and in spite of repeated warnings from our top researchers - the Department of Agriculture policy-makers in Kildare Street appear to have turned their backs on efficient, low-input production systems.

Instead, they have embarked on high-input, high-risk, gross output-focused policies which I believe are far more likely to break us than produce any improvements in our income.

Intensification will of course greatly increase gross output, but this has little relevance to earned income.

Hardship

And while more commercially successful farm sectors may benefit from costly intensification programmes, promoting such high-cost systems for people involved in low-income or sometimes no-income cattle enterprises shows an alarming sense of indifference to the hardship which will inevitably occur at farm level.

An interesting feature of this campaign is the growing use of the internet by our Kildare Street gurus to deliver their message.

Unfortunately, the ongoing failure of current and previous governments to provide a working National Broadband Service must be extremely frustrating for them as many farmers will still have to wait for up to seven years for a decent internet connection to receive their advice.

Perhaps there is a solution at hand in the shape of the novel developments currently underway in China which is a far larger food-producing country than ours.

A recent report by RTÉ's Yvonne Murray explained how the Chinese government is recommissioning communal radio broadcasts over public tannoy systems in rural villages as part of an effort to educate Chinese farmers on modern agricultural practices.

A questionable side-effect of these broadcasts is that they appear to serve as a means of disseminating Communist Party propaganda.

Of course I, like most farmers, would find this system very strange.

However, considering our broadband shortcomings and the Government's apparent determination to impose their intensive farming ideology on cattle farmers, this Chinese system of communication may hold a certain appeal for the Kildare Street experts.

 

John Heney farms in Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

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