Super weather brings new tests

John Heney

What a remarkable time in farming. In spite of the current cold snap, we have just witnessed an unprecedented combination of an unusually mild winter and an early spring. This has resulted in spectacular grass growth and, to add to this, we have the bonus that nearly every time you turn on the radio or the television somebody is speaking about farming in a very positive manner.

While all this unusually good weather is great, it has presented some interesting challenges. I've found that my usual grass-management patterns have been thrown completely out of kilter. For instance, I don't normally graze my first-cut silage ground. However, these fields, which were stopped early last October and got about 3,000 gallons of slurry per acre, had gotten very strong.

As it looked as though they would be ready to cut much earlier than the rest of my silage ground, I decided to give them a light grazing. As I write, all this ground has now been stopped and fertilised so, with a bit of luck, it should be ready for cutting in late May.

The real bonus of course was getting a couple of pens of my older cattle out on these fields in early March. I must say that I'm quite pleased at how these cattle are looking now. I find that cattle that have been housed in well-ventilated sheds, and fed a diet of good silage, adapt quickly to the outside weather conditions and start thriving straight away when they go to grass.

While all this early grass is great, the unusual nature of this spring highlights the constant challenge involved in proper grass management.

In my own case, I hope that I have made the right decisions, as showing a profit at the end of the year is principally dependent on how well we are maximising the unique grass-growing natural environment that we enjoy here in Ireland.

At this stage I must hold my hand up and admit that I made a serious mistake tempting fate in last February's column. I said that I had been casualty free up to that, and, of course, the inevitable happened and I lost a bullock just a week or two later.

The only good thing was that he made a fairly quick exit; there is nothing worse than a sick bullock lingering on for a week before eventually passing on. Losses are very much a part of farming life but they invariably bring you down to earth with a bang.

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As far as the cattle trade is concerned, I had been consciously avoiding marts since I finished buying stores for the shed last November. However, I did have a quick look in a few weeks ago; what an eye-opener. Even though I have bought in most of my stores already, I still have to buy in a few in the next month or so, and it doesn't look as if it's going to be too easy.

I suppose that I'm lucky in that I only have a small number to buy, but it's becoming increasingly obvious that any rise in the price of beef is now going straight back to the primary producer. While it is good to see the store producers being rewarded after a number of poor years, it does put the finishing sector in a very vulnerable position.

I feel that the best I can hope for is that the cattle I buy this spring will cover their costs; to me it seems virtually inconceivable that they would leave any profit. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I doubt it.

Putting all these problems aside, isn't it great to see the countryside come alive once again with the arrival of spring? I have never seen so many young rabbits playing in the fields at this time of the year.

Its also nice to see the first buttercups appearing, while the local cock pheasant seems to take every opportunity he gets these days to display his colourful plumage.

I've also had a few brief return visits from a pair of very shy and elusive shelducks, with their distinctive white and brown plumage and dark-green head.

It would indeed be a great bonus for me if these strikingly beautiful ducks ignored their normal coastal habitat and chose my pond in which to breed again this year.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

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