Farm Ireland

Tuesday 12 December 2017

We are buoyed by the past good year


John Heney

When Frank Sinatra sang that 'it was a very good year', farming was certainly not uppermost in his mind. However, as I look back on the past year, it really was an amazing year for cattle farming.

After last year's disappointing growth over the summer, the early spring of this year was most welcome. Perhaps it may not have suited the sunseekers among us, but this year's moist summer and autumn provided an ample supply of grass and silage, while at the same time not interfering too much with ground conditions.

Price-wise, it was also a very good year. With the exception of the seasonal autumn dip, prices rose steadily until they hit the magical 'grid' price of €4/kg. Of course, that was before the current effort by factories to reduce quotes.

So in spite of our global economic turmoil, it appears that farming is operating in its own special bubble, which I must confess I find to be a little worrying. I don't think I am alone in wondering if we have arrived at a new plateau of sustainable beef prices or whether we are simply sitting on the edge of a cliff in the middle of an economic storm?

I recently attended an agri-business conference hosted by one of our main banks. It was reassuring to see the confidence which banks are now showing in the future of Irish farming. More money is being made available and even new farming clients are being sought. Banking representatives focused on investing in 'farm efficiencies' to guard against inevitable future downturns.

I also found it interesting to listen to a representative of a farming organisation speak at the conference of the importance of developing "sustainable intensive agriculture".

While this is indeed a very commendable aspiration, I believe that it should be treated with some caution.


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Most people will agree that modern agriculture is almost totally dependent on a cheap supply of hydrocarbons such as gas and oil for the manufacture of fertilisers and chemical inputs. This is something which food commentators have warned of for many years, highlighting the ominous consequences which a rise in the price of oil and gas, such as we are experiencing at present, would have on food production.

Perhaps the most salient comment at the conference was a warning from an agricultural consultant about the ever-present danger of food scares. Reminding the meeting of the 2008 dioxin scare, the BSE disaster and the problems which they caused, he certainly gave the people attending the conference food for thought.

Meanwhile, back on my farm, work goes on as usual. Recently I have very been busy sorting out my cattle for going into the shed. I pen my cattle according to their age, so the oldest go in first followed by the next oldest and so on. This involves a good deal of work as it means getting in all the various groups of cattle each time I am filling a pen. However, I find it worthwhile as it means that I have no problem getting the oldest cattle out to grass first in the spring.

All this sorting of cattle has given me an ideal opportunity to have a good look at next year's raw material, and I must say that despite the difficulties buying stores this autumn that I am very pleased.

Of course, they're not all perfect. When you are buying Friesian stores, especially at this year's prices, you will always get some plain cattle.

Speaking of plain cattle, I feel that it probably would have been a good idea to have fed some meal to a load of these plain cattle that I had killed last month. My problem is that I find it virtually impossible to source animal feed that does not contain genetically modified (GM) ingredients and I am not prepared to supply meat for human consumption that has been fed with meal which contains this transgenic material.

Back at the marts, I am amazed at how popular Friesian stores have become. Some buyers were paying up to €2/kg for a mix of O and P Friesians. But I suppose the only way to discover the joys of finishing plain Friesian cattle is to buy some.

I ended up buying some Hereford stores because the Friesians became so expensive. I am looking forward to comparing their performance with the performance of my Friesian cattle next summer.

All in all, this year was a very interesting and productive one. With current developments at home and abroad, I sincerely hope next year turns out to be just as good. Anyone who bought expensive stores this back-end need not be reminded of the consequences if it is not.

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming