De­cent in­comes for farm­ers have to be at the heart of sus­tain­able agriculture pol­icy

Irish Independent - Farming - - FARM OUR - JOHN HENEY

AS THE dust set­tles on this year’s Plough­ing we find our­selves ap­proach­ing the end of a very chal­leng­ing year with un­for­tu­nately far too many empty spa­ces re­main­ing in silage pits and barns up and down the coun­try.

While the re­cent spell of dry weather has been a great help and I have some nice af­ter­grass com­ing on after my sec­ond cut, my hoped-for surge in late sum­mer growth has not re­ally ma­te­ri­alised.

I prob­a­bly have only my­self to blame as I don’t use fer­tiliser on my graz­ing ground and nei­ther do I use con­cen­trates to fin­ish my cat­tle.

Per­haps I should ex­plain how I came to adopt this low cost/low in­put grass based pro­duc­tion sys­tem in the first place.

When I first took over run­ning the fam­ily farm, I like most farm­ers did the usual soil tests and started ap­ply­ing the rec­om­mended amount of fer­tilis­ers as well as es­tab­lished a 21-day ro­ta­tional pad­dock sys­tem.

How­ever, after a few years I be­gan to no­tice that in spite of my in­creased out­put my in­come re­mained very static.

I started to do a few sums and I dis­cov­ered that there ap­peared to be no crock of gold wait­ing at the end of the more in­ten­sive farm­ing rain­bow — in my case the in­crease in out­put sim­ply did not jus­tify the ex­tra cost.

I then started feed­ing meal to help fin­ish my cat­tle on grass but after a few years I stopped and sur­prise, sur­prise I saw very lit­tle dif­fer­ence ex­cept that I had no ex­pen­sive feed bills to pay and nei­ther did I have to com­pro­mise my GM-free stance.

Of course, all farms are dif­fer­ent and luck­ily for me I had even­tu­ally re­alised that I had a farm which could fat­ten cat­tle with­out the use of ex­pen­sive meal.

So how have I coped with the dry sum­mer?

As my land is quite dry and needs a lot of rain, this year’s record pe­riod of drought was al­ways go­ing to be a real test of my low cost fin­ish­ing sys­tem.

Thank­fully, fat scores con­tinue to hold up well but that’s where the good news ends.

As well as fall­ing fac­tory prices I am ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an on­go­ing re­duc­tion of about 10kg per head in car­cass weights and a huge de­cline in con­for­ma­tion grades.

Both is­sues can be di­rectly at­trib­uted to this year’s dis­as­trous spring and sum­mer weather.

Speak­ing of poor fac­tory grades, I found it in­ter­est­ing to read re­ports that one of our ma­jor dairy farm­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions has pub­lished re­search show­ing that de­clin­ing fac­tory grades cost farm­ers over €32m in 2017.

While re­ports such as this help greatly to high­light the is­sue of de­clin­ing grades, more cyn­i­cal ob­servers might sug­gest that if these farm­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions stopped ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing their mem­bers to con­tinue down the Hol­stein/Jersey route they may not have quite as much to com­plain about when it comes to grad­ing.

Strangely it ap­pears that un­usual forms of logic are not the sole pre­serve of our farm­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions.

Sus­tain­able farm­ing

Take for ex­am­ple the com­ments of our own EU Com­mis­sioner, Phil Ho­gan when he spoke to a large gath­er­ing of cat­tle farm­ers at the re­cent ICSA 25th An­niver­sary Din­ner.

I felt he ap­peared to adopt a very se­lec­tive ap­proach to the is­sue of sus­tain­able farm­ing.

Of course we all sup­port the con­cept of sus­tain­able farm­ing and pro­tect­ing the en­vi­ron­ment.

How­ever the Com­mis­sioner didn’t ad­dress on­go­ing Tea­gasc farm in­come re­search which shows that cat­tle farm­ers are in­creas­ingly be­ing obliged to seek off­farm em­ploy­ment in or­der to lit­er­ally put bread on the ta­ble.

To me logic would demand that sus­tain­able farm­ing should not sim­ply mean em­ploy­ing sus­tain­able en­vi­ron­ment prac­tices, it should also mean pro­vid­ing a farmer with a sus­tain­able in­come to live on.

Sadly with lit­tle hope of this hap­pen­ing, our young peo­ple are in­creas­ingly turn­ing their backs on cat­tle farm­ing as a ca­reer and look­ing else­where to earn a de­cent in­come.

Per­haps the Com­mis­sioner would like to tell us who he feels will run these so called sus­tain­able cat­tle farms in the fu­ture?


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