Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Opinion: Big questions need to be asked about the drive for high cost beef systems

The first of John Heney's cattle were turned out to grass on April 9 after a short lived foray on March 24
The first of John Heney's cattle were turned out to grass on April 9 after a short lived foray on March 24

John Heney

Every farmer has a tale of hardship to relate about this spring.

For me, the real crunch came April 1, Fool's Day, when for the first time ever I had to put cattle back into the shed - further depleting my dwindling supply of silage.

What I found really heartbreaking was that every time we were lucky enough to get two fine days together we would inevitably be greeted the next morning by saturated fields after another night of heavy rain.

While the rain hasn't really gone away, last week's rise in temperatures and reduced rainfall is a positive sign that perhaps we can start thinking of getting the year back on track again

My new eight paddock grazing system got off to a very bad start, failing miserably at the first target of getting cattle onto grass in February.

I suppose I will have to ignore this year's delay because of the late spring. The next real test will be to see if the system is actually more efficient and will allow me to increase my stocking rates.

The first of my cattle had made it out onto the paddocks on March 24, albeit with a much reduced stocking rate.

This was short lived and I had to wait for many more wet mornings to pass before they made it back out for the second time on April 9.

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Even with a marked improvement in the weather, it will still take many weeks to get numbers up to full stocking rates, but here again nature will have the final say.

But it's great to see some cattle back out grazing and bar a few exceptions they have grown well and maintained their good condition over the long winter months.

With the slurry well washed-in by now, I got the fertiliser for my first-cut silage spread on the last few days of March. This should allow a good deal of flexibility when it comes to taking my first-cut which will hopefully be sometime in late May.

I am slightly nervous about bringing up this subject, but the concept of getting beef cattle out onto grass on February 11 now appears a somewhat fanciful aspiration.

Having grass in February isn't really that difficult. All you have to do is get the cattle into the sheds early and the few months growth before Christmas will provide most of this early grass.

The real problem is the second grazing and to achieve this involves considerable extra expense on operations such as reseeding as well as intensive fertiliser use. And again it is subject to weather conditions.

I don't have to remind any cattle farmer that we are working in an industry where very low margins continue to be the norm. This allows little or no scope for making mistakes.

I often wonder at the wisdom of people who constantly promote cattle production systems which necessitate a great deal of cost and investment not to mention the emotional and psychological strain on farmers.

These systems may be fine for some farmers lucky enough to have a decent off-farm income and who put a very high value on being seen as model farmers.

However, for those of us relying solely on cattle for our income I believe it is a bridge too far.

I suppose it's not really that surprising that so many farmers got caught out by the 'bad spring' given the amount of spin and hype we are constantly being subjected to regarding increasing output and with little regard for the human and financial cost.

When I went down that road some years ago, I found that any increase in output failed miserably to cover the extra production costs. Maybe I was doing something wrong, but for now I am very happy to concentrate on a low-cost grass only system which some may find far too old-fashioned but for me it's simply just about making a living.

We are hearing much these days about Ireland's grass-based food production system which is claimed to be now globally recognised

But you have to ask if promoting increasingly intensive food production systems especially in the beef sector, is going to compromise the green and natural image that is the bedrock of our food export policy.

John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary


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