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Saturday 22 September 2018

Darragh McCullough: Fatigue is a massive issue for farmers and the consequences can be deadly

Darragh McCullough
Darragh McCullough
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

We had our first Ear to the Ground editorial meeting last week ahead of production getting into gear for the new season.

There was plenty of debate around the table about whether this has been a watershed year for many farmers.

In particular, the theory goes that dairy farmers are looking for ways to scale back their expansion and beef farmers are just giving up this winter, opting instead to flog their silage for a small fortune and avoid the hassle and risk of trying to over-winter stock.

I must admit that I've yet to meet a dairy farmer who is planning to reduce numbers permanently.

At home we've taken the same steps as most others in culling animals that might've been a 50-50 in any other year, as well as preparing for an earlier dry-off date and looking for customers for surplus replacement heifers.

General tiredness is probably the biggest factor on farms right now, rather than urgent requirements to reverse recent expansion.

I see it in myself in the last week: no great appetite for tackling new jobs, counting down the days and hours to the end of the current cycle of work, hauling myself off to bed at embarrassingly early hours in the evening.

Small things suffer during these periods.

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I find myself with a shorter temper, getting stressed and annoyed unnecessarily over things that in hindsight don't matter a damn. This takes a toll on the people around you, whether they are working with you or just having to put up with you.

Tricky little jobs like reversing a trailer into a tight spot or getting the bloody computer to talk to the printer again suddenly become ball-breakers.

I also found myself getting a bit slack with safety procedures, like leaving off the hi-viz that I'd been haranguing everyone about all year. That's when the awful mistakes happen, and God knows I've reported on enough of those to know better.

So I was a happy camper when I got on a Ryanair flight to Warsaw in Poland last Thursday to see if I could build on my first daffodil exports last spring.

The grain and straw was all in and sold; surplus daffodil bulbs were packed and delivered, while the rest were planted in superb conditions and in record time.

My summer flowers are coming to an end and it's just a case of togging it out each morning to cut and pack a couple of pallets.

There is always the niggly concern that a consignment might get rejected somewhere for some reason.

It's a bit like when you have livestock - there's no reason why any of them should be getting sick but that doesn't mean that it's not going to happen.

I think farmers tend to underestimate the low level of constant stress associated with the responsibility of running a farm.

For example, I've just claimed that we're on easy street with the flowers because we've only a few more weeks' supply left and all the crop is there ready to be cut in the field. But if a hail-storm or big wind comes it could devastate the crop.

It's unlikely but it's the kind of stuff that doesn't let you ever breathe too easy until it's all over.

It was the one thing that struck my dad quite forcibly when he hung up the milking clusters for good. Whether it is for an animal that goes sick or a delivery that goes wrong, that background stress of always being on call was suddenly gone.

Of course, getting on a plane to sell flowers isn't exactly what my wife would call restful.

But it's the start of the wind-down phase - which is something that every farmer should build into their calendar.

The long cold winter followed by a challenging summer has forced everyone to work longer and harder than ever.

Every farmer needs to acknowledge that to themselves. More importantly they need to do something to counter it. That is, do less for a while. Chill out. Say no to the optional jobs, or contract them out.

As an aside, I was raging with Ryanair a few weeks ago when they cancelled my return flight home from visiting flower farms in Lincolnshire.

They sent a text about four hours before I was due to fly. I couldn't find another Ryanair flight home that evening from any airport that I could drive to in time. And I had a Dutch agronomist coming to visit me the next day at an exorbitant rate, so I was going to do all in my power to get home.

I ended up forking out about €300 to catch an Aer Lingus flight home.

A week later I filled out a Ryanair compensation form without much expectation of a full refund. Lo and behold a more than full refund landed in my account within a week.

When I thought a bit more about it I realised that without Ryanair I would never have been able to get over to the likes of Lincolnshire or Poland, or fly in agronomists from Holland.

It is the affordable international access to markets and people that has built my farm business.

It is the often maligned cheap flight model that allows me to access labour from Romania that all my picking depends on.

Come to think of it, if anyone deserves a bunch of flowers, it's got to be Michael O'Leary.

Darragh McCullough farms in Meath and presents Ear to the Ground on RTÉ television

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