I have never seen so much despondency among beef farmers. People I know, and some of these people are at the top of their game, are starting to wonder whether there is a future at all for beef farming?
It seems now that we are being told by the industry that all they want are steers and heifers under 30 months and under 380kg carcass weight.
The industry seems to be happy to put all their eggs in the one basket i.e. the British market.
I have to wonder where all the European markets are gone. And bull beef seems to be dropping off the radar altogether. Whatever the future holds for beef production, we have no plans at the moment anyway to castrate our bulls.
I vividly remember the time when we were doing a mix of steers and bulls and invariably it worked out that the steers would be six months older than the bulls at slaughter and 50kg carcase lighter. We have a real problem if we are being told that the most efficient animal we can produce is not wanted in the market.
We have built a new shed. This is the first year that all of our stock have been housed for the winter. It is a slatted shed for cows with a straw-bedded creep area for calves. The slats have rubber mats. The shed has two tanks back-to-back with the feed rails at the outside so it is quite open. We had the cows and calves out of the shed this past week and I was delighted at the vigour of the calves and the how clean the cows were.
We had two reasons for building the shed. The first was to get all stock under cover for the winter and the second is that we were anxious to slightly reduce the stocking levels in the other sheds.
It allowed us to increase the lying area for the cows and calves from 5.1 square metres per cow and calf up to 5.9 square metres per cow. And this has made a huge difference in maintaining the straw beds.
Our heifers are due to be scanned this week so hopefully that goes well. The stock bulls have all been removed from the cows but I wasn't happy with one group of cows where I felt there was quite a bit of activity and I couldn't decide whether cows were bulling or not so we did what we have never done before – a week later I left a bull back in with them.
We took the view that, in this case, a late calf would be better than none. But whatever the issue was, these cows seem to have settled down and I haven't seen the bull following any of them.
We were holding off spreading slurry until soil temperatures came up but one tank in particular will have to be spread in the next week regardless of soil temperature.
Up to a fortnight ago, everywhere was looking green with nice covers of grass but now one field, which probably had the strongest covers on it, is mostly covered with water.
Springs have come up in the yard and one particular shed has been flooded. But it's of no consequence compared to the real hardship being faced by some people because of the weather.
We are watching our silage reserves very carefully and I am reasonably confident that we will have enough but it will be very tight. So I suppose that's an added incentive to try and get some cows and calves as early as possible when conditions allow.
The straw-bedded sheds have all been cleaned out at least three times at this stage so we have plenty of farmyard manure piled up in the yard waiting to spread on the stubbles, again when conditions allow.
In some of our diets this year we used rolled oats instead of soya hulls and it has worked very well. So we are hoping this coming year to grow some oats ourselves. People in the know tell me that the secret to growing good oats is to sow it early but as I look out at the snow falling at the moment, I can only hope it will be short-lived.
We soil-tested all the farm in the last few weeks. I could scarcely believe it when I realised that it had been six years since we last did it. We don't have the results back yet but I am looking forward to comparing the two sets. One job I am not looking forward to, that we have to do in the next few weeks, is our annual herd test. Hopefully we'll go clear.
Finally, I'd like to mention that the Farming Independent is running a nationwide competition in conjunction with Zurich for the top farmer in eight categories including beef.
Closing date for entries is March 7. For more information see www.farmeroftheyear.ie
Robin Talbot farms in Ballacolla, Co Laois in partnership with his mother, Pam, and wife, Ann. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org