Opinion: Even the 'love of the land' has its limits

Not being fully included in a will can be a matter of losing your life's work
Not being fully included in a will can be a matter of losing your life's work
Breeding expert Donagh Berry talks to a group of farmers at a Teagasc beef open day.

John Heney

One swallow never makes a summer and unfortunately neither did the beautiful four days we got in late April make a spring.

However, the four fine days did mark the start of grass growth even if it was short lived and the subsequent night frosts meant I still had a long way to go before I was out of the woods.

The warm spell over the Bank Holiday weekend was again a great help and perhaps now after months of hardship I can look forward to a return to some semblance of normality on my farm.

I'm very lucky to have a dry farm and I shudder to think of what farmers on heavy soil still have to cope with.

While the cattle who have been out since April 9 on little more than half-stocked paddocks appear to be doing okay, they are still well behind where they should be in a normal year.

I have been letting stock out in dribs and drabs over the last few weeks and with the improved temperatures I should have them all out soon.

My silage fields have responded well to the improved weather.

However, I feel that it may still not be good enough for cutting before the end of the month, but in farming you never know.

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Looking at how well my silage fields are doing, you could argue that I was foolish not to have also spread some fertiliser on my grazing fields.

The reason I didn't is that I am determined to stick to my low-input system. There is a long grazing season ahead of us so hopefully the weather will improve sufficiently to compensate for the poor spring growth.

We often hear about Irish farmers' 'love of the land'. This is a unique romance which most people outside farming will never understand.

This winter's harsh weather and late spring are a very good example of some of the extreme challenges which farmers face because of this 'love'.

And while we all like to keep the 'best side out', farm income research clearly shows that for many of us - especially in the cattle sector - this love for the land is certainly not inspired by monetary gain.

In recent years, the love of the land has been accompanied by expansionary exuberance and I would argue that this potent combination has been somewhat cynically used by our policy makers to further the growth targets set out in the Food Wise 2025 plan.

Many young farmers involved in low margin enterprises such as cattle farming have been actively encouraged into making large investments in high risk expansion plans.

The policy-makers don't seem to have given much thought to the dire consequences for these farmers if things go wrong

This spring proved that the best laid plans can go terribly wrong.

Farming in New Zealand has long been held-up to us as the model which we should follow.

However, research there has discovered huge issues of depression among the farming community and highlighted the devastating effect depression can have on family relationships

Empirical evidence suggests that Irish farmers are now being affected in a similar manner.

All this reminds me of a line from a play by Marie Jones called Stones in His Pockets.

One character speaking of a farming friend declares (and I paraphrase) 'he put his trust in the land but the land let him down'

I find this line to be particularly poignant and upsetting as the character involved blames himself for events which were totally beyond his control.

Unfortunately, many Irish farmers also tend to blame themselves when things which are well outside their control go wrong.

The real tragedy would be if we don't learn from the many problems farmers have endured this spring.

As well as ensuring a sufficient supply of silage for next winter, we must also identify and recognise the underlying structural and policy problems.

These issues must be faced up to and mechanisms put in place to cope with the many stresses and difficulties which arise in modern farming.

If it can be done in New Zealand, surely it can also be done here.

Farm walks

On a more cheerful note, anyone driving around the countryside over the past few weeks could not but notice the many roadside signs directing farmers and interested parties to various farm walks and demonstrations.

The sign which attracted my attention was for the annual 'Beef Open Day' in Grange, Co Meath, 'Beef 2018'.

I have always enjoyed attending this annual event and I am certainly looking forward to attending there again on June 26.

I have no plans to radically change the way I manage my farm, but listening to new ideas is never a waste of time.

There's always room for improvement.

John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary

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