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Sunday 16 December 2018

'Maybe we will be forced to cut back our stocking rates' - How one farmer is coping with the drought

 

John Robinson pictured on his farm in county Kilkenny. Picture Dylan Vaughan.
John Robinson pictured on his farm in county Kilkenny. Picture Dylan Vaughan.

Ken Whelan

Farmers may have to pant on through this heatwave into September, and even then it will take a deluge followed by a lot of good rainfalls to get the ground back in a proper condition for farming, according to veteran dairy man John Robinson.

The 59-year-old from Kilmanagh in Co Kilkenny has never experienced a heatwave as bad in his four decades of farming, and he feels that unless there is a dramatic change to the weather, there is going to be a serious fodder crisis this winter.

"There's no point in putting out fertiliser at the moment, it just stays on the top of the ground," he says.

"What we need is a deluge and rainy weather on consecutive days every week to get a burst of growth going and get in another cut for the winter.

"If the necessary rain does not come by September, every farmer will be hoping that the Minister for Agriculture and the co-ops have a viable fodder scheme to keep animals on our highly-stocked farms fed."

It's a bleak assessment from a man who began his farming career in 1975 as a teenager and who now believes that the weather is the biggest "unknown" facing the Irish farming sector.

"I have experienced a drought in all the decades I have been working on the farm but nothing like this year," John says glumly.

"Maybe there is something in this climate change theory, and with our carbon emissions so high, maybe we will be forced to cut back our stocking rates."

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John, who farms 130 acres, feels the milk price he is getting from Glanbia is "not adequate" given the weather challenges facing farmers, but he welcomes the co-op's decision to introduce a two-year interest-free loan scheme to help members who are experiencing fodder problems.

But for the moment, farming life consists of seeing no grass grow, driving his tanker to the local river to draw some 1,500 gallons of emergency water for his 170-strong herd of British Friesian and Holstein crosses and praying that there has been no overnight water pipe burst in the locality.

The price of this heatwave for farmers in the region is pinching, John says.

"The cost of buying extra ration for the cows at premium prices and buying in any round bales that come on the market is taking value off the milk price," he explains.

John recently bought a consignment of Spanish grass which the herd enjoyed immensely but he wonders if any more of it will become available over the next few months.

John is married to Bronagh, a specialist nurse dealing with the physically and mentally disabled. They have four adult children: Kathy (28), a nurse; John (27), a masters dairy graduate completing his "rite of passage" in Australia where he is driving a digger; Julie (23), a maths, chemistry and science graduate seeking employment; and Anna (21), who is completing her studies to be a nurse.

Interestingly, John expects to stop farming at retirement age, so I ask him when that might happen.

"Well, we will see if John will get off the Hi-Mac in Australia and come home to run the farm - though he seems to be enjoying himself Down Under," he replies.

"I'd say I'll retire in five or six years' time, but we will see."

Off farm, John's main interests are hurling - of course - and travelling.

Spain is next on the agenda for the Robinsons but not until the Irish weather gets back to normal, and that could take some time."

"You can't go away when things are not settled on the farm," John says.

In conversation with Ken Whelan

Indo Farming

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