Sometimes routine has to go out the window

Posted on: 10th December, 2018

Category: Farming

Contributor: Tommy Moyles

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.

Weaning is now complete and by mid-December the daily routine for the next two months should be up and running.

This winter I’ve found myself counting the bale stacks once a week to try and keep track of the silage stocks. It’s a habit I started when silage supplies started running low in the spring. It was probably a way of reassuring myself that there would be enough to stretch through when supplies got tight in April and weather wasn’t improving. Needless to say fodder and straw stocks will be carefully managed this winter.


After almost a decade of the same winter routine, this season will be a bit different. Since the cow shed was built in 2008 it has been straw bedded. Due to price increases in straw, it made more sense to think differently rather than buy more. Rubber mats were installed on the slats in September and most of the herd will be wintered on these. They create a softer floor area and are an improvement on bare concrete.

When the cows had a choice they always preferred the straw bed but with the downsizing of the Irish tillage sector such luxuries are unlikely to be available in large quantities. While I won’t miss the daily bedding down of the sheds, the end product of farmyard manure will be a loss. It’s fantastic for the soil. Increasing the organic matter and giving extra work to earthworms and other important invertebrates is key to the biology of our soil.

With a tweak to the housing system there will be a limit to how much of the herd can be housed. To allow for this a small number of cows will be out-wintered on a crop of forage rape on a neighbouring tillage farm.

Forage rape is a brassica from the same plant family as cabbage and kale. These cows will also have access to silage, as they will need that to balance out the brassica in their diet. A bovine rumen can be finicky enough when it wants to be. These cows will also have access to iodine supplement, as forage rape is low in this mineral.

The unexpected

While there is an element of routine to daily life on farm, when animals and nature are involved, you have to be prepared for the unexpected.

I had such an event in the middle of November. 2018 the year of farming surprises continued with a photosensitivity case with an animal in the middle of November. This affliction is more commonly found in summer months and usually occurs in animals with white hair.  The randomness of when it strikes is possibly the most frustrating element of the ailment.

To compound the matter it happened one of the stock bulls who did his best to prove that the males of most species don’t make good patients.

I noticed him missing one morning and after a search around the block he was in, I found cracked wires and fresh hoof marks in the ditch. I followed these through a neighbour’s field until I located my bull thrown out flat with his legs stretched out.

I thought he was dead but getting closer I saw him breathing. I managed to get him to sit up and after a while he got moving.

For the next few hours he was very restless, throwing himself out flat and any time he’d manage to get up, he’d be staggering like a drunk. His was in an uncomfortable state all that day. Alternating between staggering around like a drunk, swaying his head through the air or else flopping to the ground.

I was concerned he’d wear himself out or get a heart attack. By the time the vet called, he was panned out on the ground to the extent that we were able to inject him in the field.

After that treatment he began to stagger back towards the vet’s jeep and for a moment I envisaged a very expensive call out fee. The reverse gear was found, denying the bull the chance to damage the vehicle.

I wasn’t overly optimistic about his chances of making it through the night. I thought he would fall back into a stream or drain but thankfully he was alive and is recovering well and should be fit in time for the next breeding season.

For anyone who would be unfamiliar with condition, here’s the science bit.

The damage is due to sensitisation of unpigmented skin. The cause of this reaction is usually plants that create liver damage. St John’s wort would be one of the plants that can cause this issue if ingested by a cow. Eating these plants makes some cattle more sensitive to the sun. The penetration of light into the sensitised skin causes cell death, swelling and itching.

In some animals the recovery can be unsightly with patches of skin peeling off.

When the liver malfunctions, toxins build up instead of being filtered out and some get in the blood. When these toxins get in the blood they cause photosensitisation when they reach the skin. For a short period of time it causes a burning sensation on the cattle’s skin and is referred to some farmers as sunburn.


Off farm beef price trends haven’t been positive. By mid November the trend most years is to see a rise in factory prices but due to an exceptional October in terms of weather and ground conditions, stock were held a bit longer resulting in larger numbers coming to market later in the year. It’s of scant consolation, but bullock and heifer beef price while behind this time last year is ahead of 2016.

The real story is with the cull cow trade. The increase in the dairy herd is now showing on the beef market with extra cows available at the end of the year and prices falling at a higher rate than usual.

In mart sales analysis of Irish Farmers Journal MartWatch prices from September to the end of November compared on the same period in 2017 make for interesting reading.

The average 350kg weanling bull sold for €791/head between September and November, back €35/head on the same time last year.

The absence of the live export trade for light weanling bulls has played the largest role in the reduced demand for these bulls.

The bottom third of weanling bulls have dropped close to €60/head. In a more positive contrast, the top 10 per cent of weanling bulls are selling at the same level as the same quality last year.

For heifers prices nationally are back by up to €70/head on autumn 2017, for the bottom third of weanlings, while the top 10 per cent are running €20/head behind the same time last year.

The store trade has held much stronger. The average 550kg bullock saw prices back by just €16/head from September 2017 compared with the same period this year, while the top third saw little change at all. Looking at the bottom third, average prices are running just €28/head behind the same time last year. However, this gap has intensified in recent weeks.

There’s been more positivity of late for dairy farmers with both Carbery and Dairygold holding their prices in a move that provided good news to farmers after a taxing year.

The West Cork co-ops maintained their position at the top of the Irish Farmers Journal milk league for October. There is now a gap that has widened further between €4.63 per kilo of milk solids paid at the top compared with €4.17 per kilo at the bottom of the league. In cent/litre terms this is 3.5c/l. A breakdown into the monthly milk cheque arriving to Carbery suppliers farms show that they are anywhere from €700 to €1,000 better off than suppliers to the other milk processors in the country.

AgriTech 2018

In late November I attended the AgriTech 2018 held in Skibbereen Community School in conjunction with Ludgate Hub. Sponsored by Carbery group and AIB, the event enabled researchers, industry and farmers to mix and hopefully go some way to communicating the needs and possibilities between all parties.

A recurring theme of the day was the need for technology to be practical and beneficial to the farmer.

Presentations varied from biotechnology to big data but the conversation almost always returned to farm level and practicality. The more practical technology is, the better chance farmers have of availing of it.

Technology in many forms plays a big part of my farm work. Calving cameras would certainly be in my top five technologies implemented, not far behind would be diagnostics. Samples are taken annually of soil to check the pH and mineral levels. Blood and dung are also sampled to check for parasite presence and mineral deficiency.

Top of my technology wish list is biodegradable, or if such a thing was possible, digestible silage wrap. That’s one for the scientists.


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