In his farming diary, West Cork suckler farmer and columnist with the Irish Farmers Journal, Tommy Moyles covers the lay of the land across all agri and farming enterprises – news, views and people in farming across West Cork and further afield.
There was a bizarre scene here on the longest day of the year. Cows in the shed eating grass. The reality of fragmented farming means that while on paper there is plenty grass available to the herd, it’s not always where I need it.
A good part of the main block of ground in Ardfield is on a south-facing slope so when we do get very dry spells of weather, grass growth grinds to a halt. We experienced dry spells like this in 2013 and 2014 so it’s accounted for when planning out the year. In a dry spell we have to budget for feeding some baled silage to allow growth to build back up. This has happened at some point from June to August over the last fifteen years. The last two years with relatively constant rainfall means we’re out of practice.
We made extra silage on the ground in Ballinascarthy and fed some of this fresh in order to stay ahead of trouble and the main group of cows will be supplemented with silage again if required. We could have grazed some of the silage ground in Ardfield but after the prolonged winter housing period I’d be happier seeing the bales left alone and the shed utilised.
In the past we would have set up round feeders and fed stock outdoors. I find it less damaging to soil and good training for the animals to bring them into the shed for a few hours instead. If anyone had told me that at the start of May I’d be doing this six weeks later, I would have said they were daft.
Average grass growth for Cork at the end of June is running at around 57kgs Dry matter per hectare. This is close to half what it was on many farms a few short weeks ago.
Workwise, the time from mid June to August tends to be the calmest time of the year. Breeding season is on the home stretch. The finishing bulls are sold so there is no longer a daily feeding routine so herding is the main job silage is getting under control. The other annual summer job for me is power washing the sheds. I have a love-hate relationship with this job. It nearly gives you too much time to think. This is fine if you’re feeling good but if you have too much dwelling on your mind it’s a job better avoiding.
West Cork Farm Tours
This summer sees a new venture on the farm. Together with four other farmers and with the backing of three local hotels we have formed West Cork Farm Tours. It offers visitors the chance to see commercial farms and hopefully will go some way to bridging the gap that exists between food producers and consumers. My grandfather used to run a hackney service for tourists in the 1960s and 70s so this is now a chance to use some of the information he passed onto me about the locality.
It has been interesting process getting set up and has soaked up a bit of time as we fine-tune it. While we’re taking a chance on a potential opportunity because of the farms location, living in a tourist area also provides a few challenges.
As many West Cork farmers know, living and working in a tourist area means there are times when you’re under a bit more scrutiny. I’ve heard of plenty examples. I know of one man who had a cow that was down and in an effort to get her to stand she was put in a field in front of his house. The earth would give her a better chance of standing than a concrete floor. He had three callers to him enquiring what was wrong with the cow. Having a lame cow can lead to similar well meant concerns in some instances.
I had a similar experience recently. A few concerned tourists called to say they thought there was a dead calf in the ditch. I explained that I had it seen it earlier and that it was normal behavior for young calves to seek a sheltered spot and all was ok.
After they had left I went to check on it. I got within a few feet of the calf and within seconds the ‘dead calf’ was dashing back to his mother.
Traditionally there was a fall off in beef price from the longest day of the year. This would coincide with a rise in the supply due to cattle that would have got to grass earlier in the year coming near finishing. With the difficult spring encountered by farmers there was some speculation that price might remain higher for a longer period of time this year. Unfortunately for those with stock to sell, factories are starting to pull prices back a little with young bulls and cows, the categories beginning to feel the initial pinch.
Quotes for lamb are also pulling back slightly but strong demand is keeping a firm base on prices.
Milk Price & Farm Incomes
There’s a slight hold appearing in milk price. Carbery group cut 1c/l from their support payment but held the base price paid for milk supplied in May. This will see suppliers receive a base price of 31.9c/l excluding VAT.
Their neighbours to the north, Dairygold co-op, held the farmer price at 30.36c/l excluding VAT. To do this they cut the fodder relief payment, which was 1c/l in April and increased the base by the same amount.
It’s a different tale from last year when milk price was driving on again driven by a demand for butter. The strong performance of milk in 2017 drove farm incomes according to Teagasc’s National Farm Survey. The results revealed the average family farm income (FFI) for each of the sectors. The FFI in 2017 was €31,400. This figure is the farm’s total gross output, which includes direct payments, everything sold off the farm during the year, minus all direct and overhead costs. The FFI does not include family labour as a cost nor does it factor in bank repayments. Including even estimates for these would be welcomed by farmers.
The overall figure was an increase of over €7,500 on the 2016. However, the results also show that 35pc of farms earned less than €10,000 in 2017.
Teagasc has said that the rise in average farm income is almost completely driven by the very large increase in income observed on dairy farms. The report also states that more than two thirds of the farms represented by the survey saw little change in their income in 2017 in comparison to 2016.
The average income on dairy farms is estimated to have increased from just over €52,000 in 2016 to over €86,000 in 2017. Average income per farm in 2017 for the two non dairy cattle systems were €12,500 on suckler farms and €16,500 for finishers. While average income on sheep farms rose by almost €1,000, to €17,000, This was mainly due to the support provided to the sector as a result of the Sheep Welfare Scheme.
Average income on Tillage farms was €37,000 and Teagasc associated this increase of €6,000 with higher yields and lower production costs.
Taking a quick look through the other sectors the figures might seem stark. Farm size, the part time or full time nature split within drystock and the large number of farmers involved in comparison to dairy dilute the figures somewhat.
One of the joys of farming is that you just have to deal with what the weather throws at you. I was speaking to a farmer recently whose farm would be wetter and more challenging than most of us in east West Cork and he described it as being in farm heaven.
Farmers in low rainfall areas or those that are overstocked may feel the pinch now but I think every farmer would have bitten your hand off for this warm spell if you offered it back in April.
Maybe 2018 will turn out to be one of the turning points in Irish agriculture. The sector is under pressure on the outside, as there are issues with Ammonia and green house gas emissions. One of the main reasons for this is the rise in cattle numbers to over seven million head for the first time since the turn of the century. The economy is nearing full employment again and this tends to coincide with a fall off in interest in working in agriculture.
Farmers have had to deal with a difficult winter and non-existent spring. On top of that the dairy sector has experienced a fall in prices earlier this year and a shortage in labour.
These have always been an issue across the primary sectors of the economy and will continue to be. Adversity is often a great driver of change in agriculture and it keeps us on our toes.