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Farming

Doubt the Celtic Cow, because we recall the Celtic Tiger's fate

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Tommy and Ben (3) turning hay at Woodtown, Drumcondrath  Co Meath last summer. Ann Fitzgerald recalls driving their own Massey Ferguson as the hay was baled. Photo: Seamus Farrelly

Tommy and Ben (3) turning hay at Woodtown, Drumcondrath Co Meath last summer. Ann Fitzgerald recalls driving their own Massey Ferguson as the hay was baled. Photo: Seamus Farrelly

Tommy and Ben (3) turning hay at Woodtown, Drumcondrath Co Meath last summer. Ann Fitzgerald recalls driving their own Massey Ferguson as the hay was baled. Photo: Seamus Farrelly

Last week, I turned 50. Yeah, I know, it's rare to hear a woman talking about her age, especially when it's that kind of age. In our heavily North American influenced society, being young or at least looking young is highly desirable. But some people are old at 30, others young at 70. And, there's no time limit on life.

Left to my own devices, I would have been happy enough to let my birthday pass quietly under the radar but a friend who recently hit the half century herself was intent in ensuring otherwise.

So I had the option to either fight it or embrace it. I started looking at my life to date and at my own family, where my father died aged 42 and one of my two brothers, Johnny, died at the age of 24. Wouldn't either of them loved to have reached this milestone?

I grew up on a farm and farming has essentially been the soundtrack to my life. One of my earliest memories is of steering a tractor down a hill in a field in a very low gear as my dad threw hay off the trailer behind to what I presume were weanlings.

I also remember clearly the bright red colour of a reconditioned Massey Ferguson 135 which we got some years later.

This was the tractor that crawled in from the meadow with teetering loads of square hay bales with us perched on top, messing when we weren't peeling the lifted skin off the blisters on our hands.

I was at a conference recently when someone remarked that kids growing up on farms today have a very different experience. Machinery is so much bigger and faster and farms are far more dangerous so most children, including our own, tend to have a less active role. What impact will this have in the long-term? Will they have the same empathy with livestock and love of the land?

ADVENTURE

Ours was an average underdeveloped mixed farm on typical West Limerick land, dairy cows (a three-unit bucket plant from the '70s into the '80s) with the male calves sold as stores.

Unfortunately, one winter in the early 1980s, a lot of cows died from salmonella which meant that when quotas were introduced in 1984 my Mum got a very low allocation. Life wasn't easy but we never wanted for anything and, for about a decade or so, we diversified into sheep.

I had wanted to be a vet but failed to get the points. Twice. I studied Natural Sciences but, unable to get a job here upon graduation, headed to Australia for a year where I got to live the great outback adventure, droving 1,500 head of cattle across Queensland on horseback, sleeping under the stars in a swag.

On returning home a friend suggested that I should write about this. I duly did and this was my first step into journalism. I gradually built this into a full-time job and it was through my role as livestock editor with this paper that I met my husband, Robin Talbot, a suckler farmer from Laois.

The venue was the crisis meeting which kick-started the so-called 2000 Beef War. This launched the concept of the beef factory blockade and it was a very effective tool on this and subsequent occasions.

Farmers are back in conflict with factories again but I think the time has come to either find a new weapon, or establish some new working arrangement as the current one is not working. And isn't it amazing how, when each factory apparently has its own markets and customers, nobody is interested in taking bulls a day over 16 months?

Robin and I are married nearly 12 years and the changes we have made on the farm have been largely driven by market signals and tightening regulations. We have moved from a split calving season to being entirely autumn calving. In more recent years, we've gone from exporting the best of our weanlings to finishing everything.

The males are now finished as bulls. The older sheds did not have effluent storage facilities so we built two new cattle sheds that can house everything over the winter.

Meanwhile, my brother Gerry, who now farms in Elm Hill with his wife Trisha and their three kids, has tried to build up milk quota at every possible opportunity, trebling cow numbers since my mother's time. They are among the many such dairy farmers who are now at a crossroads. Do they join the race into bigger numbers?

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the unchecked enthusiasm about dairy's prospects in Ireland. It elicited a lot of response, among them a phrase which I think is worth repeating: "Beware the Celtic Cow, remember what happened to the Celtic Tiger."

Farming is challenging and will always be. It has become more intensive and there are further ambitious national targets for increased food production. So are we any better off than the previous generation and what for the next?

The sector is now highly regulated. Running costs keep rising. Even more marked is the increase in capital costs, a consequence of intensification. But is there a point of diminishing returns, whether that is in terms of individual farm incomes or unit prices? Indeed, what is the environmental trade-off for all this extra economic activity? Time will tell.

For me for now, what do I see when I look in the mirror? Yes, plenty of wrinkles, a few scars, a few inches around the middle that I'd prefer weren't there. It's a lived-in and loved face and body. I am lucky, to have the best husband in the world, two lovely children, good friends and family, an appetite for life and the health to enjoy it. Now, that's well worth celebrating.

Ann Fitzgerald can be contacted at cooleballacolla@gmail.com

Indo Farming