Traditional skills hold key to coping with challenge of disturbed weather

John Heney

Wet blustery weather has again prolonged the long, cold spring. There is now a huge challenge to get our farming enterprises back on track.

Even though my grazing supply remains critical, the last of my cattle went out to grass on May 1, over two weeks later than last year.

In the end, I was forced to let them out as they simply refused to eat any more of the old left-over silage which I was giving them.

At the moment, I am doing a lot of juggling around with my grazing fields. The disturbed weather means I must hope and pray that there will be sufficient re-growth on paddocks which have been grazed. I am lucky that I still have some cattle to buy, but at the moment nothing could be further from my mind.

Thankfully, the first cattle I let out in late March are beginning to look much better even though they have had very little to eat in the meantime.

On the other hand, the cattle let out most recently are still looking pretty miserable but I'm hoping that after a few weeks they will also show improvement.

At this stage, it looks as if the task of getting cattle finished on grass this year could be very challenging. In my case it will be even more difficult as the plain Friesian cattle I feed are the hardest of all to finish. Life is all about challenges, but I doubt I'll feel as philosophical next August when I'm trying to pick out my first load for the factory.

It's difficult to imagine that at this stage a few years ago I already had my silage cut and in the pit. At the moment, my silage fields appear okay, but it will be well into June before they will be worthwhile cutting.

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On what is a very dry farm, I find it most peculiar to still come across patches in the fields where water remains lodged and the grass has turned black. In all the years I have spent farming, I have never seen anything like this happen before. We really are experiencing most unusual times.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore repeated warnings by scientists that farming and food production systems are moving into a challenging era of disturbed weather caused by global warming.

Perhaps the time is approaching when we should consider how to adjust our production systems to cope with these impending challenges. However, great care must be exercised in seeking out solutions.

I believe it is well worth exploring the vast wealth of farming knowledge which has been passed down through generations. Although largely ignored by officialdom, it is these traditional skills that have been largely responsible for building Irish farming's unique green image as a producer of natural healthy food.

There are many powerful interests, particularly in the biotech sector, who would destroy this exceptional competitive advantage for their own short-term gains. If there is to be a future for food production in this country I believe their efforts must be resisted at all costs.

It is said that every cloud has a silver lining and, at the moment, I am blessed with an abundance of wildlife on my farm. As well as the usual inhabitants, the pond is currently home to a pair of mute swans, whose daily antics are a great source of curiosity for the cattle.

A brace of mallard ducks are also visiting on a regular basis and hopefully they will decide to stay and breed. It is two years since two shell ducks raised their family here and, in spite of some occasional visits, these predominantly coastal inhabitants haven't returned. It's also nice to see that a family of waterhens have taken up residence, too.

On dry land, I have observed a number of foxes keeping me under close scrutiny as I move around the farm. Even though they are blessed with a good supply of food in the form of young rabbits, I'm afraid they may turn their attention to the pheasants that live here. They've had no success in taking any of them yet. Time will tell.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary. Email:

Irish Independent

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