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.
At times I feel like I am writing more about weather than farming. Still it has so much influence over agriculture. For the last twelve months it could be summed up best by using the GUBU acronym coined by Conor Cruise O’Brien in the early 1980s. Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented.
Three impossibles. A hurricane, a blizzard and a drought. You could even argue that the last minute cancellation of the second day of the National Ploughing Championships was a fourth impossible.
But the show goes on.
In Cork, land west of a line from Kanturk to Macroom and down to Bandon seemed to fare okay this summer. However, most of the ground east of it encountered a much more challenging time in terms of drought.
The weeks either side of the ploughing saw the world of silage cut in West Cork. The scenes were like something from May or June. Hopefully this should go a long way towards filling any potential fodder deficit.
A slight reduction in the national herd may also help. The Department of Agriculture AIM (Animal, Identification and Movements) age analysis of the national beef and dairy herds recorded a year-on-year reduction of 23,693 and 18,207 head of cattle in the beef and dairy herds respectively on August 1, 2018.
This is driven by an increase in live exports of beef-sired calves in 2018 and a reduction in suckler births.
The latest ICBF birth registration records for the week ending September 21, 2018 shows a reduction in suckler births of 37,000 head. This tallies with the drop of 31,556 cows in the suckler herd over the last 12 months. In contrast, the size of the national dairy cow herd has recorded further growth, increasing 40,440 head to reach 1,451,454 cows.
This rise in dairy numbers will taper off a little in future with less dairy replacement heifers and a spike in the number of beef cattle in the 12- to 18-month age bracket, which recorded an increase of almost 64,000.
This is stemming from a continued switch in dairy herds from dairy genetics to Angus and Hereford sires, with a greater number of surplus cows not used to breed replacements served to beef bulls in recent years.
Dairy markets are showing a slight improvement of late and this is beginning to trickle back to farm level. Dairygold held its milk price for August at 30.36c/l excluding VAT. In milk solids terms this translates as €4.27/kg. Despite rumours of a rise, the milk price was held by their southern neighbours supplying Carbery also. Dairygold prices remain over 0.3 c/kg MS (2.5 c/litre in old money) behind the West Co-ops. Drinagh co-op paid out the highest milk price for August, marginally ahead of their West Cork counterparts. Using average national figures, the August milk cheque to a Drinagh supplier comes in at €19,799. Suppliers of co-ops towards the east of the country were making over €1,700 behind for the same volume of milk supplied.
There is a potential downside to rising milk prices in the Autumn. While speaking to a knackery operator in the Spring, I was told that when milk price is high at the end of the year it can result in increased mortality in Spring. He explained that farmers are tempted to milk on a bit longer and there is a chance that a cows immune system can be compromised, which in turn can lead to difficulties in Spring. In cases this can reduce the dry period of the cow. To any non-farming readers, the dry period is used as down time and allows her to build up body condition again in preparation for her next lactation. It is the time between when a cow is dried off and stops producing milk until she calves down again. Ideally this is about two months and can be longer.
The figures on cow mortality for January to May 2018 were released recently and they were stark. The tough spring conditions saw an increase of 21 per cent in the number of on-farm cow deaths compared to 2017. Figures from the Department of Agriculture show that 53,650 cows were recorded as on-farm deaths between January and May this year. This included a 25 per cent rise in dairy cow mortality and 10 per cent increase for beef cows. The number of on-farm spring calf deaths, including stillborn figures also increased, up by 12 per cent.
Unprecedented weather conditions played a part in these figures and hopefully the Spring of 2018 will prove to be a wake up call for everyone involved. As the saying goes, if you have livestock, you have dead stock.
Ahead of sheep breeding season there has been a noticeable rise in the recent ewe and ram kill. It was recorded at 20 per cent of the total and up 1,600 head above the corresponding week in 2017. This has been a trend which has been a feature of 2018 and is resulting in 53,721 more ewes and rams being processed. This reflects a combination of a very tough spring, feed shortages due to drought and farmer frustration at current prices, with reports of some farmers culling harder and reducing numbers.
This is across the lowland and hill sheep sectors. While always a tougher sell hill lambs have been a very tough trade this year. While conditions this summer on the hill were near ideal. The same could not be said in the east and midlands of the country, areas that would be traditional destinations for these store lambs are still suffering the effects of drought.
It’s a similar story for beef weanlings with some of the traditional buyers holding tough this year. With a smaller live export outlet there has been downward pressure on prices here too. Fall in dry stock sector prices and a reemergence of construction could make for an interesting few years ahead and processors will have a bit of work on their hands to convince younger generations to continue providing raw materials.
I’ll admit that the moving of the GAA All Ireland final dates has thrown my annual September farm clock out of kilter. Traditionally, September was usually a month where you hardly needed a calendar. The All Ireland hurling final was the first Sunday, The football on the third with the National ploughing championships usually sandwiched somewhere in between. Once these events had passed it signalled the beginning of weaning the calves on the farm.
I use a system developed in Canada called quiet-wean. It involves putting an anti-suckling device in the calves nose. This was my second year using this system. It involves putting an anti-sucking device in the calves nose. The calf then stays with the cow for a number of days and gradually they can be separated. It reduces the dual stress of separation and diet change in one go.
I tried them last year and was unsure whether I would use it again after my first experiences, because it took a bit of time to work out how to insert the anti sucking nose paddle and most weanlings had to be stalled up, which generally doesn’t go down well. Those few seconds stalled can take them time to forget and a few proved to be more awkward to work in the yards after it. Thankfully, I was more adept at inserting the paddles and as a consequence only a small percentage had to be stalled this year.
They were left back out the field as a full group and while the calves weren’t overly happy at having no access to milk, there was silence.
Thankfully weaning is no longer the ordeal it used to be. Over the years various different methods were used. Each had their own merits and faults. More often than not a determined cow or calf would find their way back to the other group. Invariably it was three calves. I don’t know why it was that figure but calves rarely seemed to run off in pairs.
Once the calves are weaned, I try to spend a bit of time training them in. Nothing too strenuous and it gets them to associate me with positive experiences. I give them a bit of ration in the yard and I just crouch down near the feed trough and they slowly but surely start eating while I am there. It might sound ridiculous but it makes for easier animals to deal with down the line.
When my brother worked on a cattle station in Queensland a few years ago he said the days after weaning calves were spent training them. This involved just walking them through crushes and yards and getting them used to the working dogs.
I go to marts now and it’s very easy to spot those not weaned properly. You can do it with your eyes closed if you want because they will deafen you with the roaring. It’s something that farmers need to pay more attention to.
Above: Newly weaned group of calves. Pic: Tommy Moyles