Monday 11 December 2017

Nature is cruel

David French's herd at his farm at Raheenvarren near Newbawn
David French's herd at his farm at Raheenvarren near Newbawn

The scene at Raheenvarron in Newbawn was like something out of an Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn novel. You remember Aleks. His books shook the world as they exposed the evils at the heart of the Soviet empire. They also left a lasting impression on readers of merciless east winds and desolate landscapes populated by gaunt spectres wondering where their next meal might be coming from.

This spring, the Wexford countryside has been cruelly transformed into a land beset by merciless gales whistling in from the general direction of Vladivostok. We have Taghmon tundra. The steppes of Saltmills. The scene has been pure Solzhenitsyn, with hungry cattle in the role of those gaunt spectres wondering where their next meal might be coming from.

The big advantage of the cold and drought which characterised the month of March and spread their chill influence into April was that at least the fields of Raheenvarron-on-Baikal were perfect for parking. The hundred or so cars packed into the upper meadow on the farm of Davidovic and Maireadova French last Tuesday left little or no mark on the land. No need to have tractor and tow rope on stand by.

The occasion was a dairy farm walk organised by Teagasc, the agricultural advisory service. Where the old Soviets used to favour grandiose five-year plans, the commissars of Teagasc favour three-year plans instead. Their goal is to have milk producers licked into shape by 2016. They brought a battery of experts to Raheenvarron to persuade the kulaks of Wexford and surrounding counties to measure up.

It is the custom on these occasions to conduct the lectures and seminars in the open air. So, as we listened to a leading light from Moor Park speak on the intricacies of impregnating cows, there was no escaping that breeze with its kiss of ice from the Urals. And as we stood huddled together for warmth, the ground under our feet reminded us of the problems besetting anyone with livestock to feed.

Yes, there was grass beneath our wellies but it was not the grass of a typical Irish spring. This was grass that had been grazed and then never recovered. This was grass pocked by bare earth. This was grass waiting to be blessed with the warmth of the Gulf Stream after long exposure to the baleful blast of an Arctic anti-cyclone. Three-year plans are all very well but the here and now of the fodder crisis could not be avoided.

David French (to give him his proper name) is a great believer in feeding his 90 cows what usually comes naturally – good old-fashioned Irish grass. When the climate is behaving itself, he can scarcely wait to beat them out the door of the slatted sheds and into the fields. This is the grass dependent model that Teagasc is promoting as our dairy kulaks – sorry, dairy farmers – prepare to make the most of a world liberated from the shackles of EU quotas.

His cattle – mostly black and white Holsteins with the odd dash of Norwegian Red and Jersey in their genes – are not used to the indoor life. They do not spend their careers confined in stalls being fed expensive meal but rather favour time spent as nature intended frolicking in the open air and eating God given Irish grass. This year, God has not so far obliged.

'We are finding it very challenging,' David confessed. He believed he had a good supply of winter feed put by only to have his housekeeping blown severely off course by the big chill. Last week he could be seen welcoming the man from Glanbia like the prodigal son when he arrived with a delivery of emergency rations. Instead of feasting on grass, the French herd must stomach Glanbia's cocktail of barley mixed with citrus, beet and sugar pulp. Very nutritious, no doubt, but not what these refined rural ladies are used to and very expensive compared with the home grown.

The French family has been farming in Raheenvarron since 1833 and this is surely the first time in 180 years that there animals have been dining on citrus pulp. David has figures to illustrate the weirdness of it all: in a normal March/April the grassland here can be expected to produce 30 kilos of dry matter per hectare per day. The Siberian spring of 2013 has yielded five kilos of dry matter per hectare per day for weeks on end. Put simply, the grass has not been growing.

The Adamstown man enjoys the company of his animals. He revels in a breeding tradition which means that no cow has been bought here in since 1986, when his father Frank was in command. David remains convinced that dairying is pleasurable and profitable.

He has plans to expand his business but first, please, let there be warmth.

Enniscorthy Guardian

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