Farm Ireland

Monday 11 December 2017

You may not be able to reverse the ageing process but growing older is not always a hindrance

John Shirley

I looked in the mirror last night and thought, 'damn it'. Not a black hair to be seen and yet it seems only yesterday that the first grey intruder sneaked in. I get some consolation from a perusal of the age profile of farmers around the globe where I see that I am now a member of a big group. And maybe if I think about it long enough there are other little perks that come with maturity.

Across the EU, 52pc of the landholders are over 55 years of age. Indeed, almost 30pc are over 65. Eurostat figures show that Irish landholders tend to be younger than the EU average, with only 40pc of them over 55 years. In the UK, more than 50pc of landholders are over 55, with the average age for the UK farmer at 58 and rising.

At the other end of the age spectrum, only 8pc of EU landholders are under 35. Ireland fares a little better scoring 13pc, although Macra claims that the number of farmers under the age of 35 has dropped to as little as 7pc. Legislators and planners have to take these realities into account when dreaming up targets for our farmers.

Farming can be physically demanding but the auld lads are in no rush to throw in their shovels or vacate the tractor seats. Why should they if they believe that they can still do the job?

Then again, it is the attitude of a person that can matter more than anno domino.

Some 20-year-olds can be bone lazy. Equally, a hardy 70-year-old can still cover a lot of ground. Once I recall two neighbouring farms, both of which were manned by fathers of almost 80 and sons in their 40s. When one of the 80-year-olds dropped dead, the other remarked that he was sorry for the son as old Paddy "still had a lot of work left in him".

The rashness of youth versus the wisdom of maturity can also come into play. Once I observed a father and two sons each with a tractor and trailer drawing in silage from one of those huge, self-propelled harvesters. The senior man took his time negotiating hazards with care. The sons had the accelerator foot to the floor and were hopping off the fields and lanes taking risky short cuts. At the end of the day the father had shifted the most silage. Unlike the sons, he had to take no down-time for breakages and repairs.

We have all heard the story of the old bull and the young bull when they suddenly came across a bunch of heifers. The young bull gets excited and says: "Let's run over and bull a few of these heifers." The older one replies: "No, we'll take our time and bull all of them."

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Nevertheless I have to acknowledge that there will be no 60-year-olds contesting this year's All Ireland finals, and Father Time seems to be even slowing that great warrior of Ireland's rugby scrum, John Hayes.


As age takes some of the pep out of the body, the farmer has to become cuter and more resourceful. Particularly in tillage farming, it's a matter of keeping abreast with the latest technology and machines that are appearing on the scene. If you cannot afford to buy them yourself, keep an eye on which farm contractors have the most efficient and labour-saving equipment.

Livestock can offer a bigger challenge and indeed a lot of livestock seem to be under the charge of senior farmers. But there are a number of little tricks that will enable a body to indulge one's passion for farming even when the hair turns grey or even white.

The electric fence can be better than 10 young lads around a livestock farm. It is also better than a quad bike around livestock. Not alone will a good electric fence keep your stock apart from the neighbours, with temporary fencing you can set up corridors and roadways to direct cattle in what ever direction you desire. A farmer in Wexford showed me how he could extract cows from a group for AI by using a reel of electric fencing string almost like a fisherman casting a line.

Training livestock to come to a bit of meal feeding also helps to keep the farmer in control. This must be complemented with a good and secure handling unit.

The final part of the jigsaw is to work with docile cattle. In this respect, the breed societies are trying to breed greater docility into their cattle -- and rightly so.

With sheep, the greatest asset that will keep you in the business into a ripe old age is a well-trained sheepdog coupled with good fencing and handling facilities.

All of these processes make sense at any age but become more of an issue as the limbs slow down and there is less help around the place.

Scientists are looking at ways to reverse the ageing process. Last November we were told that researchers at Harvard University in the US succeeded in reversing the ageing process in mice. This included turning grey hairs back to brown or mousey colour and reversing the bald patches.

Across the US, doctors claim that they are making humans 20 years younger by giving human growth hormone. Fat is turned into muscle and the vital organs grow stronger.

This could certainly come in handy for an Irish farmer but then again I don't really like to see scientists playing God. Anyway if I really felt that bad about it, there's stuff in a bottle that can restore black hair.

Indo Farming