Farm Ireland

Monday 19 March 2018

Why this beef farmer has changed his attitude to a lot of 'advice' coming his way


The return of the good weather after a period of rain was helpful with getting a first cut of silage done, as contractor Alan Lucas demonstrates. Photo: Roger Jones
The return of the good weather after a period of rain was helpful with getting a first cut of silage done, as contractor Alan Lucas demonstrates. Photo: Roger Jones

John Heney

With the long, dry spell coming to an end and the return of wet, showery weather just in time to coincide with the main silage cutting season, I had visions of large silage trailers loaded with wet grass getting stuck in muddy gaps. In other words, the arrival of the much-needed rain could have turned out to be a case of 'out of the frying pan and into the fire'.

Fortunately, it didn't happen and the welcomed return of the sunshine last week allowed me the opportunity to get my first cut of silage done. It seems to be quite heavy, but I'll have to wait and see what it's like when it settles in the pit before I make plans for a second cut.

In spite of disappointing growth in April, overall my cattle appear to be doing quite well, however even with the recent rain, grass growth remains relatively slow.

With the aid of hindsight, which of course is a marvellous thing, I probably should have waited until later in March to let out the first of my cattle, however, with a bit of 'robbing Peter to pay Paul' style of grass management, which of course is far from ideal, I managed to get them through the dry spell with just about enough grass to keep them going.

I was slightly concerned that some cattle who were grazing an area which received a good covering of lime last winter weren't doing as well as they should.

Suspecting that copper deficiency could be a problem, I gave them a copper dose. Of course I could be wrong and it may not do them any good, but at least it will give me peace of mind with one less thing to worry about.

While I struggle each day to manage my farm in the most efficient manner I can, I must confess that I often feel quite overwhelmed by the constant barrage of so-called farming advice and information which we are being subjected to. Unfortunately, more often than not, I am finding that much of this 'advice' is simply large agribusiness companies cynically promoting their products under the guise of helping farmers.

Once again, recently published income figures would suggest that the cattle sector continues in survival mode. A fellow cattleman drew this to my attention some time ago. He claimed that to survive in the cattle business with no other source of income was an outstanding achievement and anyone who did so should feel very proud.

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Perhaps he is right and we should indeed feel very proud. His story reminded me of something which occurred some years back.

Together with a farming friend, I attended an official open day on an award-winning beef farm where we were shown how things should really be done. It was a very impressive set-up with no money spared on feed, livestock, machinery or equipment.

My overriding memory of that day was how disillusioned I felt on the journey home - I felt totally devastated at the seemingly inefficient and totally incompetent way I was managing my own farm.

When I later heard that within a year or so of the event, the same award-winning farmer had exited the beef business completely, I must confess that it totally changed my attitude to a lot of 'advice' which I have since heard coming my way.

Farming has now become a very intense and time consuming occupation.

Recently, I took the opportunity to step off the frantic agricultural carousel for a few days' break. I feel that taking time out occasionally from one's job is very important and can allow us to take a far more objective view of where we are.

We all like to take a good book with us while on holidays, so my choice was another Alain de Botton book, How Proust Can Change Your Life. In this book, Botton critiques the writings of prominent French novelist and thinker Marcel Proust.

One thing which really struck me about this book was the concept of various types and sources of knowledge.

I was very taken by Proust's thoughts on the dramatic contrast between formal learned knowledge and knowledge gained from life's experiences. In Ireland, this concept is often referred to colloquially by the expressions 'experience teaches fools' and 'by our mistakes we learn'.

It appears that for some time now, scientific knowledge has, to a large extent, overtaken and sidelined the whole concept of wisdom gained from experience.

Recently, however, we increasingly find that facts which were claimed to have been scientific certainties are coming under increased scrutiny by both modern science and society in general.

Take, for instance, the current debate around the use of glyphosate and perhaps the future use of biotechnology in food production - this debate would appear to suggest that scientific research is not infallible, it is very much a work in progress and can never be fully definitive, which unfortunately many in the scientific world will still not admit.

We all know that wisdom derived from experience tells us a lot about our farms, including what specific enterprise or enterprises are best suited to us. This type of knowledge is of course invaluable in the running of any farm, so obviously there is a great deal of truth in what the 17th century French novelist said.

Perhaps it's now time that we bring both strands of knowledge together, both learned and experienced, rather than have them continually competing with one another, something which serves no one's interests, least of all farmers.

I believe that this could be a very wise thing to do.

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

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