Darragh McCullough: My thoughts are already turning to next year and a new irrigation system

Darragh McCullough on his farm in Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Darragh McCullough on his farm in Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

IT was hard not to be envious of both the farmers that I was filming with last week. It was the start of production for my 16th season on Ear to the Ground.

One was a young man in his 20s who sunk €1.5m into a state-of-the art glasshouse to grow tomatoes. He was able to control every Joule of energy available to the plant, from the light intensity to the make-up of the atmosphere surrounding it.

But it wasn't this that made me envious. It was the fact that 70 days without rain hadn't affected Martin Flynn's tomato production in the slightest.

The Dublin grower has always had a top-of-the-range irrigation system in place to keep his plants turbo-charged.

A few days later I left my parched farm in Meath again to travel to Achill Island to meet with the Calvey family, who have built a successful sheep farming business by highlighting all the aspects that make it unique from most modern mass-production food systems.

Despite the fact that these two farms are on opposite sides of the country and almost at opposite ends of the farming spectrum, the Calveys were similarly unperturbed by the drought that had gripped the rest of the country.

Just to rub it in, it started to gently mist on my face as we started to film up on top of a hill overlooking Keel beach. Boy, did I wish some of that would push over to the east coast and drop a bit of precipitation on the farm at home!

Instead, I went home to tanker more loads of water up to the fields. In hindsight I was a little slow out of the blocks on this one.

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The neighbour that I swap land with had been hauling close to 50 slurry tankers daily into a lagoon on my farm to then pump up to an irrigator in his field of spuds for almost a week before I realised just how badly my own crops were doing.

It was only when I stuck my nose under the fleece covering my last sowing of sunflowers that I realised that there wasn't a hope of the seeds germinating.

So I joined the queue at the huge watering hole in a quarry across the road.

But I was getting off lightly - the spud man had two tractors shuttling back and forth for up to 16 hours a day.

Some 12 days into it, the commitment in terms of manpower and tractors and tankers doesn't bear thinking about.

Meanwhile, the word is that potato yields will be down by at least 30pc.

I've given up putting any stock in the 30pc, 40pc and even 50pc chance of rain that comes up in the Google 10 day forecast. It's always 10 days away, and by the time it's two days away it has evaporated.

Even after the rain that arrived last weekend, it will take at least a week of fairly consistent showers to have any meaningful impact on soil moisture levels. By then a lot of the damage will have been locked in on crops.

Winter barley yields are at least one tonne back in fields that looked like four- and five-tonne crops.

My winter wheat has just gone bleach white on the brows of any little hills in the fields so I can't imagine that the grain fill will be anything like normal in these patches.

I was lucky in some respects with my spring barley in that the Macken lads who do all my cereal contracting did a great job sowing it.

But spring barley crops all over the country are suffering. It's by far the biggest cereal crop grown in Ireland, and it's predominantly grown in the two regions most severely affected by the drought, the south and the east.

Those depressed yields, along with the undercurrent of demand for wholecrop from livestock farmers, has to have a positive impact on prices. But I don't expect to be paid anywhere near €200/t for grain, and that is what would be required to compensate for the drop in yield.

Straw is a tricky one. On one hand, tillage farmers deserve every extra euro they can get for their straw.

But you don't want to charge so much that you lose your regular customers. I reckon €20 is as much as I'm going to look for for 4x4 round bales. That's still a 35pc increase on last year.

The impact of the drought on the dairy partnership has been well publicised in this paper and elsewhere. Suffice to say that we are still spending €1,000 a day on keeping silage and meals in front of the cows in an effort to maintain yields. Milk yield is down by over 10pc compared to last year but at least early scanning results have shown an 85pc conception rate. That is a credit to the Leonards and their team working day to day on the dairy.

In many ways the dairy is getting off lightly too. We haven't had any problems with the well and still have our first and second cuts intact. All we can hope for now is that milk price creeps up another bit to help compensate for the costs associated with getting it as far as the tank.

There will be other knock-on effects such as the hit in beef and lamb prices at the factories.

My thoughts are already turning to next year and likely investments in irrigation systems to guarantee crops' survival. This is what the climatologists warned us would happen with global warming so I think it would be foolhardy to assume that this is a one-in-40-year event.

If we are heading into an era of weather extremes we may have to rethink how much we can expect from our farms.

At least my bronze turkey chicks that arrived a week ago are having a nice time. They need about 30C for the first couple of weeks of their lives, so they've been basking in the warm temperatures. Lucky sods.

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

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