Farm Ireland

Thursday 14 December 2017

Exodus of young farmers is a distressing trend -- we can ill afford to see them go


John Heney

As we approach the middle of January, there is still one major legacy from last year on my farm. That is the disappointing yield from last year's first cut silage and the question of whether I will have sufficient silage to see me through to the spring.

Due to a very good November and December, I, like many others, delayed the housing of cattle. In fact it was December 10 before I put in the first of my cattle and it was actually December 21 when I got the last of them indoors.

This meant a great saving of fodder and resulted in my second-cut silage lasting well into the middle of January.

However, I will soon start to feed first-cut silage and I am hoping that the quality will be equally as good.

I am reminded of the old adage about the glass being half full or half empty. Looking at the pit, I feel that it is more than half full and I should have plenty silage. However, should we have a repeat of last year's spring, I could be in deep trouble.

Christmas passed off quietly on my farm and except for having to take a few lame bullocks out of the shed, the cattle have settled in very well.

I am always a bit concerned on Christmas morning that something might go wrong like a hydraulic pipe bursting on the tractor.

But I needn't have worried, as everything went off well and after feeding the cattle I was able to get back inside quickly to enjoy the festivities.

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On a broader front, a dark cloud appears to have descended over cattle farming with the anticipated rise in the Christmas trade failing to materialise.

While over-age cattle are increasingly difficult to sell, the situation is far worse for those with bulls, many of whom are still holding stock they had hoped to sell in December.

What was recently referred to as a 'Golden Age' for farming appears to have again by-passed the cattle sector. In spite of record-breaking export figures for 2013, serious questions are now being raised about the future viability of both the suckler herd and the beef finishing sector.

With a sharp rise in input costs, many involved are starting to re-think their plans for the future.

It saddens me deeply when I receive feedback from readers, many still in their thirties, telling me of their plans to exit farming and in some cases emigrate to find work in places as far afield as Africa.

They see this as the only option left to them to earn enough to support their families at home.

Apart from the huge social and personal cost being paid by these people, this is happening at a time when the average age of people involved in farming is already far too high. Irish farming can ill afford to lose young people like this.


I find feedback such as this even more disturbing because it paints a very different picture than that portrayed in the grossly exaggerated spin about the farming industry that is currently being promulgated by many politicians.

However, we are starting a new year and there is usually a great deal of optimism around at this time. We are already looking forward to what spring may bring, because as farmers we really are eternal optimists.

What I would like for 2014 is a little more honesty from the people who control our industry -- those in the agri-food sector, the advisory services and indeed the inhabitants of Leinster House.

Why are farmers still waiting for some definite news about the SFP changes involved in CAP reform?

We were promised that things would be sorted by mid December but it's now mid-January.

How are farmers expected to plan their 2014 farming year when they don't know where the goal posts will be?

Perhaps these people would also stop treating farmers as if they know nothing about their own farms and the industry they work in. I believe too many people in our industry see farmers simply as pawns to be used for their own personal political, professional and business interests.

I will never forget something a high-ranking director of the farm advisory services in India said to me at a UNEP conference a number of years ago.

He told me that when he sent his advisors out to meet his farmer clients he specifically instructed them to first "listen to the farmers" and to make that their top priority.

He maintained that farmers were the people who really knew their farms and what farming was all about.

Perhaps it would be too much to hope that such a courtesy might be extended to Irish farmers in the future?

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary. Email:

Irish Independent