John Heney: 'You can no longer tell how cattle will grade until you see the kill sheets'

This bullock was the smallest of a group of John Heney’s four store cattle bought in September last year, averaging 423kg live weight. Factory returns showed that he killed-out a very good 336.5kg with a confirmation grade of O-
This bullock was the smallest of a group of John Heney’s four store cattle bought in September last year, averaging 423kg live weight. Factory returns showed that he killed-out a very good 336.5kg with a confirmation grade of O-

John Heney

MY Friesian cattle are now out to grass and the grazing season has begun in earnest, but our recent unpredictable weather has made grass management quite difficult.

My initial worry was that the exceptional early growth could have resulted in grass getting too strong and unpalatable for my cattle to eat.

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On the other hand, as I don't spread any fertilisers on my grazing fields, I must be very careful as I don't have any quick fixes (in the form of nitrogen) to fall back on if grass gets scarce.

While there is little use in worrying about the past, I have found that using weight-gain figures from recent years is a good guide to successfully managing my supply of grass.

So far this spring, the eight-paddock grazing system which I installed mid-way through 2017 appears to be working well and hopefully this will continue for the rest of the year.

Unfortunately, last summer was no real test of the system as the severe drought ensured that pretty well everything operated in survival mode.

On a positive note, the cattle who are out on grass since mid-March are now beginning to show signs of rapid improvement in condition. But judging by their current confirmation, I'm becoming a bit concerned about how they may grade next autumn.

Carcass grading machines continue to deliver some very unpredictable results.

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It has gotten to the stage that you can never really tell how your cattle will grade until you actually see the kill sheet.

CAP reform

At this stage, the ongoing CAP reform discussions are a real concern for Irish farmers. I have often heard it said that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

Looking at what's happening with the CAP talks, you would wonder is this what is happening in the European Parliament Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development.

In spite of efforts by politicians, including some of our own ministers, to promote the concept of "sustainable, intensive agriculture", there is a growing realisation by the public at large that the intensification of food production has come at a huge environmental and social cost.

Rather than looking for a less intensive, more sustainable model of agriculture, populist policies appear to have taken precedence in Brussels over practical measures that would secure European food supplies

For example, here in Ireland, our own farm policies have encouraged farmers into dramatically increasing output.

It now appears that farmers who followed this advice must also pay the costs of the environmental damage caused by these policies or else face severe EU penalties.

As all this must be achieved on a reduced CAP budget, it really does appear that the EU cares very little for the increasing number of people who are being forced out of farming.

Being a member of a sector already overwhelmed with red tape, I found it difficult not to smile when I read in the EU's 'Cork Declaration' that "flexibility and better targeting in policy design and delivery is necessary, but must not result in unnecessary complexity".

Anxious to get a different perspective on the future of farming, I attended a recent lecture presented by Professor Wayne Powell of Scotland's Rural College in the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin. The theme of this very well attended meeting was 'global environment and crop sustainability', and Professor Powell examined global agri-food and the environment in terms of climate change and food sustainability.

Disruptive technology

Professor Powell's presentation was quite technical and I have concerns about the possible dangers involved in some of the disruptive technology models of food production he outlined.

But it was refreshing to hear him state that beef and dairy were not alone an integral part of a balanced diet, but also an important part of mixed farming systems adhering to traditional 'good farming practices'.

Professor Powell also emphasised the fact that livestock production was a critical factor in eight of the UN's 15 'Sustainable Development Goals'.

He argued that through careful management and advances in animal feed, much can now be achieved in reducing GHG emissions from ruminants.

This point was later supported by Professor Gerry Boyle from Teagasc.

As far as plant breeding was concerned, he went to great pains to explain how advances in conventional plant breeding are already having a huge influence in increasing food production in developing countries.

Unfortunately, Professor Powell remained steadfast in his belief that biotechnology (GM) would be a necessary tool for increased food production in the future if we are to feed a predicted global population of over 10 billion people.

Using an example of the serious unrest in some of the Arab states in the 2008 to 2012 period, Professor Powell's most salient and, indeed, frightening point for me was his strong assertion that history has repeatedly shown that food security is critically important in order to avoid serious political and social unrest in a country or state.

Taking into consideration the current global political environment and the ongoing fog of confusion which surrounds the CAP reform debate, perhaps the EU would do well to remember this.

John Heney farms in Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

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