Farm Ireland

Thursday 14 December 2017

Practices of past still have merit

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

There have been huge changes in farming practices during the past 50 years. Gone are the scythe, the hay knife, the horse, the reaper and binder, the ricks of hay and straw, the milk churn, and the hairy outlying Hereford cross store bullocks along with the fairs where they were bought and sold.

Farms are now larger and many are run as a part-time enterprise. Farm housing is greatly improved and you rarely hear anyone complain of chilblains now that most homes have good insulation and heating.

Perhaps the biggest change has been the disappearance of people from the land. The farm labourer departed once better wages in industry both here and abroad proved too great an attraction.

Mixed farming has virtually disappeared and stringent regulations governing the production of food have eliminated the farm housewife's sources of pin money which were primarily the sale of eggs and butter.

Current health and safety requirements have placed huge obstacles in the way of anyone attempting to sell home produce locally and it is no longer viable to keep even a sow or rear small numbers of chickens and turkeys.

It is, of course, easy to sigh nostalgically over the loss of so many traditional farm practices and yearn for more relaxed ways and a slower pace of life, but our living standards have improved beyond the wildest dreams of the rural population of 50 years past.


Gone is the drudgery and the hard, physical labour that was part of everyday farm life. The arrival of tractors with three-point linkage, PTO shafts and front loaders was perhaps the biggest bonus along with rural electrification, refrigerators, washing machines and mechanised milking parlours.

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Farm families in the 1950s produced most of their own food with few outside purchases. The word "intensive" had not come in to use while the vast majority of farmers kept the same numbers of livestock as their parents did.

Hay was almost the sole source of fodder for surviving the winter months and despite the uncertainty of Irish weather, in most years hay saw us though the hungry times.

It was also common practice to graze lightly and leave a good thick coating of grass on pasture land Instead of the current practice of tight grazing.

Most livestock farmers ensured they had two years supply of hay and I can recall questioning my father regarding this practice.

His reply was that May can be a very hungry month and good hay was like old gold. In a bumper year, hay was never sold but built in to ricks which, when properly constructed, could last for several seasons.

This ensured that a fodder crisis such as we suffered recently could not occur. While listening to the many news reports this year about how farmers were struggling to feed their stock, I was reminded of the practices of times gone by and I wondered why we no longer ensure we keep a surplus to see us through when the rain keeps falling.


We have a great advantage over our parents' generation in that we can make round bale silage almost regardless of the weather and if properly protected, it will keep for several seasons.

I would question some of the wisdom coming from our advisory services who have for decades been urging us to maintain the absolute maximum numbers of stock on our land.

This practice requires good weather throughout spring, summer and autumn and especially on vulnerable clay soils. Rehousing livestock during a wet June is an expensive option.

We have also become dependent on heavy machinery to harvest crops, which often causes serious compaction when land is saturated.

It seems utter madness to me to send out big forage harvesters and often larger tractors and trailers to gather silage in wet ground conditions yet we see this occurring year after year.

Many fields will never recover unless sub-soiled and drained to remedy the damage and this is a costly exercise.

We are under constant pressure to produce more and more from every acre while the price of food continues to decline in real terms.

We are urged to specialise in the production of milk or corn or meat, but if our chosen enterprise suffers due to market conditions or weather, we then have no alternative to turn to.

Perhaps a little less stock, a surplus of fodder, lighter machinery and at least one alternative enterprise might prove more prudent in the long term.

Irish Independent