Peter Hynes: Countrywide error could do huge harm to farming

Rural and farming-based radio shows can be a great place for the wider public to learn about how food is produced – but not if they get key facts wrong

No confusion: Peter Hynes’s beef calves from his dairy enterprise

Peter Hynes

Cows are content as we finally get to enjoy warm sunny days and grass is growing at a phenomenal rate.

Our silage contractor is booked to get first cut silage harvested. As we have more red clover silage swards now, we will continue to use a silage additive applied at a low dosage rate via the silage harvester.

We look forward to seeing how will the new Precision Microbes silage inoculant works, given the success we have had with their calf product.

Red clover silage swards will be mowed first and given 12 hours longer to wilt, but we will not tedd out the red clover so as not to damage the crop given the brittleness of the leaf structure.

With the first round of our 2023 breeding season behind us the weather is warm and settled and repeats so far are few.

Heifers were served on a fixed-time AI programme so will be tail painted now and monitored for repeats which will again be served to AI.

50pc of cows received beef semen on their first serve and now all repeats are being served to beef semen. Year on year we have been curtailing the use of dairy semen as we strive to limit the number of Holstein bull calves born on farm.

As I listened to RTÉ’s Countrywide last Saturday morning, I was curious to hear the interview with Prof Donagh Berry about the research on genetic traits surrounding methane production in bovines.

I am convinced that research and science is the key to helping us reduce emissions on farm. As positive as the story was, it all came crashing down when the presenter Philip Boucher-Hayes finished the segment claiming: “The current projections are, the number of dairy calves born in the next two to three years will increase by 40pc so will we be running to stand still.”

I thought, how can this be true as our dairy industry is facing reductions due to nitrates banding, while a voluntary national dairy herd reduction scheme will start in 2024.

An increase of 40pc in dairy calf births would essentially see a 40pc increase in the national dairy herd.

Delving into where this mysterious 40pc increase was coming from, I quickly found out that Boucher-Hayes had wrongly quoted Teagasc predictions: they are actually forecasting an increase in dairy beef calf births over the next two to three years due to increased use of sexed semen combined with farmers using more beef semen on farms.

For the non-farmer readers, a dairy beef calf is a calf born from a dairy cow and sired by a beef bull.

We milk 180 cows on our farm, and all our autumn calvers are bred to sexed semen only, as are all our pedigree Jersey cows.

We have limited the amount of conventional dairy semen used on the spring calvers, so while we had 44 Holstein bull calves born on farm in 2022, we will only use 60 conventional dairy straws in the 2023 breeding season.

With a 70pc conception rate, this should leave us with 42 pregnancies.

Allowing for a 50-50 split on male and female calves from the 42 pregnancies, we should only see 21 Holstein bull calves born in the spring of 2024.

This 50pc decrease in the number of dairy bull calves born will then equate to a 20pc increase in dairy beef calves born, yet we will still only have 180 calves born and 180 cows milking, so no increase in our herd.

You can see why farmers get so frustrated at the misinformation being fed to the Irish public.

The public need to know that Irish agriculture is doing all it can to reduce emissions while also maintaining food production — which is crucial in global food security and a key part of the Irish economy.

It is imperative our national broadcaster stays balanced in reporting but most importantly, gets its facts right.

Rural and farming-based radio shows can be a great place for the wider public to learn about how food is produced and how farming practices evolve, given that urban listeners are more disconnected than ever from where their food comes from.

However, these shows can do a lot of harm to our sector when they get things wrong.

The entire Irish agricultural industry knows it must reduce emissions.

We need to do it together with buy-in from all sectors. We are seeing farming practices change yearly, and with increased investments in research, I firmly believe the way we farm in 10 years will be different but better.

But I might be listening to a different radio station.

Peter Hynes farms with his wife Paula in Aherla, Co Cork