Hundreds of cows and their calves were left exposed to the worst of Storm Emma in a farm part-run by Teagasc.
Agriculture chiefs are expected to review the operation of ‘open greenfield’ farms in extreme weather in the wake of the challenges of the past weekend.
A number of calves were lost at a Kilkenny facility since the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma hit Ireland, with the animals kept in roofless cubicles on a special concrete pad.
At one point, snow drifts of a metre covered the roofless cubicles in Kilkenny as staff worked around the clock in an effort to protect the exposed animals from the elements.
Dozens of other open greenfield farms are now operated by large-scale dairy producers across Ireland, particularly in Munster. Some farmers have questioned the suitability of such cattle systems to the Irish environment.
A well-placed Government source said that in the aftermath of this weekend a review was likely into the operation of such open greenfield farms in extreme weather conditions.
However, Teagasc dismissed suggestions that the farming practice was in any way cruel.
Workers had to repeatedly dig snow out from the open cattle storage area and trackways. They also had to dig the exposed milking parlour out of snow drifts. Cows were not milked for almost two days. Workers even had to battle to keep the milking machines defrosted.
They also worked to build a special wall of straw bales in a bid to protect the cattle from wind chill in the face of the bitter eastern gusts.
At the height of Storm Emma, the cows were huddled together for shelter and warmth.
But Teagasc pointed out that such units are commonplace in Canada and New Zealand, where cattle routinely deal with temperatures far lower than Ireland witnessed over the past week.
A Teagasc official denied that such ‘open’ farming systems were cruel.
“No, not at all,” he said. “Perhaps the single biggest factor in terms of animals being cold-stressed is their access to fodder.”
Well-fed adult cows are hardy and capable of dealing very well with freezing temperatures, the official explained.
“In our climate, if adult animals are well fed and have access to water, they will not be cold-stressed,” he added.
But while the 270 animals had more than adequate supplies of fodder in Kilkenny, concern was raised over the fact that they were effectively exposed to the elements because of the roofless cubicles.
Locals stressed that workers on the farm did “Trojan work to care for the cows and calves”.
The experiment with the open greenfield farm complex began almost nine years ago.
Experts acknowledged that the key problem with such farms is their lack of flexibility in terms of dealing with very extreme weather events.
The facility is run as a demonstrator farm and has a three-way private ownership structure, with operational management advice from Teagasc. Teagasc does not own the facility, which is on a former tillage farm.