Farming

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Farmers can do their bit to boost growth and aid national recovery

'Ask not what your country can do for you ... ask what you can do for your country." So said US president John F Kennedy in his inauguration speech almost 52 years ago.

His exhortation is most relevant in the Ireland of 2012.

Our country needs farmers to also do their bit for national economic recovery. As former agriculture minister James Dillon put it 65 years ago, each farmer should think "one more cow, one more sow, one more acre under the plough."

Today, this is once again official national policy. It's called Food Harvest 2020 (FH2020). The FH2020 report has set a target of a 50pc increase in Ireland's farm and food output by 2020.

The policy was launched in 2010 by farm minister at the time, Brendan Smith, and has been embraced by his successor, Simon Coveney.

Mr Coveney chairs the FH2020 Implementation Committee, which meets several times a year and sets annual milestones towards the eventual target.

The off-farm agri-sector, including the semi-states, service companies and banks, has also bought into FH2020 big time. The future for many in the private sector, and maybe even the public sector too, hangs on the success of FH2020.

The targets include a 50pc lift in milk output volume, a 40pc lift in beef value, a 50pc rise in pig meat value and a 20pc increase in output from the sheep sector. More recently, a 30pc increase in tillage acreage, coupled with a 50pc output increase, has been added to the mix. This is heady stuff. But have farmers bought into this top-down policy?

Irish farm organisations, when a budget looms, tend to follow the trade union tactic of seeking a bigger slice of the national cake, or at least holding onto what they have.

Individual farmers, however, have to do their own sums and set their own targets.

On paper, Ireland is theoretically capable of doubling output. The average cattle farm is using less than four tonnes of grass dry matter per hectare compared to the 10t DM/ha achievable from a well-managed and paddocked dairy farm.

The scope for a national output lift is massive.

To give Teagasc and other parties their due, they are putting their money where their mouth is, through projects like the Greenfield dairy farm in Kilkenny and the BETTER farm beef project, which has shown that improvements across several fronts can make a major difference to bottom line profit.

Looking across the sectors, the 50pc target volume increase in milk output by 2020 looks the most likely to be achieved.

Between 1975 and 1983, Irish milk output expanded by almost 6pc per year. At the time, this was the fastest growth in the world. Then, wham, the quota shutter came down and output remained static for almost 30 years.

Over the same period, world milk output nearly doubled, and New Zealand's output more than trebled.

There is huge pent-up expansion in Ireland to be released when the quota goes in 2015. During the quota era, Irish dairy farmers brought in about 270,000 heifer replacements a year.

Such has been the jump in dairy bull usage that 400,000 dairy herd replacements should be born next year and we are in line to have a herd of 1.5 million dairy cows by 2015 (up from 1.1 million). Throw in extra yield and a switch back to feeding milk powder and it looks as if the 50pc milk expansion is on course.

Beef

Suckler cow numbers doubled from the 1980s to 2000 on the back of subsidy incentive. But between 2005 and 2010, Ireland's suckler herd contracted by 10pc.

However in the past year or so this trend has reversed, with ICBF data showing a 6pc increase in beef calvings this year and an even more impressive 22pc increase in beef heifer calvings.

I reckon that the jump in the factory beef price to over €4/kg and the lucrative price of store cattle gave the farmers the confidence to put more heifers in calf. But I fear that if the beef price slips again, confidence will be short-lived. Ireland should bring back a subsidy incentive for suckler cows in the CAP changes. Undoubtedly, there is huge scope for more efficiency in our beef farming. Currently, 40pc of steers are over 30 months of age at slaughter. Getting them finished earlier would free up land for more suckler cows.

The calving interval in suckler herds averages in excess of 400 days. Improving this to 365 days would boost the national suckler calf crop by 10pc or 90,000hd.

We have a major advisory effort going into increasing beef farm efficiency through the BTAP farm discussion group scheme, with up to 5,000 farmers taking part in the intensively monitored and coached BETTER farm network and the new maternal index for selecting suckler herd replacements. This concentration on beef efficiency and breeding will certainly help, but I believe the main driver for beef expansion will lie with the extra calves coming from an expanded dairy herd.

It's vital that this is backed by a reopening of the North African outlets (live and carcase) for the males from the dairy herd. The 40pc expansion target is still ambitious.

The biggest roadblocks to the FH2020 targets will be farm structure and land mobility, coupled with the lack of profit on some of our farms. Some 12,000 farmers are getting Farm Assist cash just to put food on the table. But here, too, there must be room for an increase in efficiency.

Everybody should buy into the FH2020 mindset. We are rightly angry at the State waste, banking and pension scandals but farmers are sitting on a vital national resource.

In this time of crisis, we are morally bound to help meet the FH2020 targets and give a lead in meeting the patriotic calls from JFK.

Indo Farming