Farm Ireland
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Friday 20 July 2018

Opinion: When are we going to face up to the hard facts about expansion?

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Stock Image.

John Heney

What a challenging farming year we are having. At this stage it looks as if Mother Nature is prepared to throw her full box of tricks at us in 2018.

We started the year with an extended cold period of no growth and now we're right back there again, this time drought being the problem.

So where do we go from here? On my farm grass is drying out quickly but things could be a lot worse. I still have a number of paddocks available and my aftergrass is just about ready for grazing.

The decision I must now take is when do I put cattle onto this aftergrass; should I go ahead right away or should I wait a while longer?

Because of the amazing growth in May and June I have a slight build up of grass which my cattle are currently grazing and appear to be doing well on.

However, in spite of this I am becoming increasingly concerned about the current dry spell as past experience strongly suggests that dry summers do not suit my farm and usually results in reduced kill-out weights at the end of the year.

For me it's a very fluid situation, even though you set out a plan for your farm for the year it still needs to be tweaked on a daily basis. At least that's my experience of grass management over the years.

Beef 2018

Confused and totally overwhelmed would best describe how I felt as I left the recent Teagasc beef extravaganza in Grange

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First of all I must heartily congratulate Teagasc on the excellent way in which they staged the event.

We all know that most beef farmers like to put on a good show and Teagasc certainly did not let the side down. Even so, with so much going on I must confess that I found it very difficult to take it all in.

Looking around the massive display put on by Teagasc on their Grange site you could be forgiven for thinking that we were dealing with a hugely successful sector of not alone farming but of our overall economy.

It certainly did not give the impression that it was dealing with a beef sector in deep crisis.

This puzzled me intensely until eventually the penny dropped.

Despite the fact that farmers at the 'coalface' of the industry earn very little, the value of beef and beef related exports to the Irish economy was a whopping €3.8bn last year - then it all started to make sense to me.

It also went a long way to explain why there was so much emphasis, some might say to the point of overkill, on expansion and increased production with very little hard facts in relation to actual extra income for farmers.

A schoolboy could tell you that increases in gross output have little relationship to actual income earned.

Also there is no point in claiming that you doubled or trebled you income if the income figure you started off with was little or nothing.

My concerns were in no way diminished when I noticed that figures on one stand showed that a beef farmer could in more extreme cases expect to spend up to €1,500 per acre to develop his or her land in order to achieve the sort of production figures mooted that day.

Where an ordinary cattle farmer is going to get that sort of money is a mystery to me and that's before the extra cost of stock and housing are taken into account.

One thing which cattle farming really teaches you about money is: be very careful how you spend it.

As a producer in what in now referred to as an 'all grass' system I was particularly interested in the 'On Farm Influences on the Eating Quality of Beef' stand.

What immediately jumped out at me was the finding that "at a similar fatness, (there was) little influence of breeding type or gender of the animal on attributes such as tenderness and flavour."

This would appear to support my own findings but would of course find little favour in more elite cattle circles.

All those involved in Teagasc must be complemented for such research, and indeed, all the other valuable work they are currently undertaking in relation to beef production and farm management.

Output

Of course a dramatic increase in output must come at some cost to the environment. There were many examples of remedial efforts for water quality and soil composition on display in Grange, but I was disappointed not to find any stand which dealt with the broader issue of biodiversity and modern farming in any meaningful way.

When old pastures are sprayed-off for reseeding it results in a total wipeout of existing ecosystems including millions of plants insects and invertebrate species.

Ignoring these 'inconvenients truths' certainly won't make them go away.

Finally, and perhaps it's just me, in relation to ongoing farm development policies and even our current weather difficulties I have noticed a growing tendency amongst some farming 'experts' to speak down to us and lecture us as if we were little more than a crowd of imbeciles.

I feel it's worth reiterating that as farmers we take great pride in our chosen profession and we are also very proud of the deep understanding of our farms and the natural environment which was passed on to us by previous generations.

Large attendances at farming events such as Grange 2018 also show that we are continually seeking new ways to improve our knowledge.

In a world where it appears that everything is now judged by its monetary value could the fact that we chose to devote our lives to an industry which returns such low incomes be the reason why some of these 'experts' now feel justified in addressing us in such a dismissive manner?

John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary

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