John Heney: Brexit isn’t the only fine mess that’s facing rank-and-file beef farmers
With echoes of the Laurel and Hardy film, Another Fine Mess, it appears that all we can now do is to sit back and watch our near neighbours take their final few steps along the treacherous edge of the Brexit precipice.
Hopefully they won’t topple over but if they do, the EU will need to put something very special in place to make sure we don’t all go down with them.
Meanwhile, farming life goes on. I have just finished spreading fertiliser for first-cut silage and with the arrival of spring, the time has also arrived for letting off cattle.
Because of the wet weather around St Patrick’s Day, my cattle got an extra week or so in the shed, but the recent fine spell has meant that more than half the herd are now out on grass. While they may have put on some condition over the winter, I find that my cattle always look pretty miserable for their first week or two outside.
On the bright side it’s great to see stock out on the land and with grass growth so good this spring, I’m hopeful for a good early thrive.
Friesian cattle such as mine appear to be getting a particularly bad press these days. Yet while they may ‘only’ be a by-product of our dairy sector, this actually gives them one major advantage over their more glamorous beef-bred counterparts.
As the greenhouse gas emissions of Friesian cattle dams are shared by the beef and dairy sector, I would argue they are therefore more efficient in this department than beef-breed cattle who have to carry the full burden of responsibility for their dams’ greenhouse gas emissions.
In relation to greenhouse gas emissions, what mystifies me is that there is little recognition of the fact that up to 90pc of the beef and dairy produced in an non ‘factory-farming’ manner on Irish farms is actually exported across the globe.
In doing so, it earns billions for the Irish economy. We also have to factor in the amazing ability of the grassland on which these cattle feed to absorb and store carbon.
Conversely, countries which produce little or no food themselves and who consume all this food, get off scot-free as far as shouldering the blame for greenhouse gas emissions is concerned. To me this appears very wrong.
Imagine the uproar which would ensue if the UN’s climate watchdogs insisted that oil producing countries who produce the fossil fuels – which are by far the main contributor to greenhouse gas emissions – should carry the blame and financial burden. It is regrettable that important issues such as these were not examined to any great extent in the recent Citizens’ Assembly’s report on climate change.
Speaking of food production and specifically low-margin beef farming, isn’t it about time that our policymakers woke up and admitted that their current high input, one-size-fits-all approach has been a total disaster.
Recent media reports suggest that these high-cost policies have forced many young cattle farmers to rely on off-farm income to simply put food on the table.
Empirical evidence also suggests that off-farm income is now required to pay off borrowings on many of these farms.
This is a very high price which many young entrants to cattle farming now have to pay for their youthful drive and enthusiasm.
There has to be a better way.
We are blessed with having the best land and climate in the world for producing quality food and we also have some of the best agricultural research facilities in the world.
As farmers, we know that every farm, indeed every field, is different – each having its own strengths and ability to produce various crop types or support various livestock production systems.
Using this local knowledge, farmers both full and part-time – in conjunction with some of the more experienced people in our advisory services – could draw up plans specifically aimed at the most efficient low-cost/low-input production systems based not on output but on efficiency and ability to generate income. It certainly couldn’t be any worse than what’s happening at the moment.
Finally, I recently called in to the initial meeting of our newest farming organisation, Talamh Beo, held in Kilrickle, Co Galway.
In a hall packed with mostly young people, how refreshing it was to hear the passion in the voices when they spoke about their farms and the manner in which they produce food in harmony with nature.
I thought to myself how great it would be if these young enthusiastic voices could be heard when future Irish farming policies are being decided.
Hopefully this will happen sooner rather than later.
However, cognisant of what they are up against, I won’t be holding my breath.
John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary email: [email protected]