Farming has changed and will keep changing: Consumer, market and social trends all play a part. All you need do is ask any of the older generation in West Cork and they will tell you how the countryside has evolved. In the 1950s and 60s and there would have been a lot of grain grown in these parts. Labour was plentiful and mixed farming was commonplace because of that. EU membership, free secondary education and improved technology were three things that transformed rural Ireland over the last 50 years.
Go back further still and look at the old mills now in ruin that served different purposes. Flax growing and the production of linen were common in the Clonakilty area. At its height, the industry frequently brought in £1,000 per week to the town in the late 18t century.
By 1837 the linen industry still had 400 looms in Clonakilty and provided employment to 1,000 people and weekly sales in the region of £300.
Financial expectations of future generations and their choice of labour will be one of the factors feeding into how livestock farming will evolve. We also need to be aware of consumer trends and their ability to change.
Super year for
On farm it’s been such a super year to date for cattle thrive. This was really evident when finishing off the cow and calf weighing. This time last year, most of the cows were about 30kgs back on their 2017 weight. This year most of the older cows had gone up anywhere from 30kg to 80kg per head. I haven’t the finishing heifers weighed yet but hopefully they should weigh well. The weighing scales is one of the most important tools on a beef farm. It gives a good indication of performance and you can highlight health issues too if an animal ends up losing weight.
Warts and all the bull calves averaged 1.17kg/day and the heifers 1.06/kg. In our first year back using traditional beef breeds our heaviest calf was a Hereford heifer with a growth rate of 1.44kg/day. While weighing, calves were given vaccine boosters and thanks to the good year to date they also got their first worm dose. Dung samples were taken in June and the worm egg count was low so they were left alone until September.
After two months dominated by protests at meat factory gates and talks to resolve the issues there is finally a thaw and meat processing began in late September.
At it height there was in the region of 22 meat plants closed and meat production was reduced to a level where supply was significantly affected, workers were temporarily laid off and some beef contracts came under pressure. Estimates vary but it is though there are now anywhere for 70,000 to 100,000 cattle that would have been processed still around. This backlog will take some time to clear.
The Beef Plan Movement, a group formed late in 2018, began protesting in late July with the first protest nationally happening outside ABP Bandon. The initial protests concluded, amid legal threats hanging over the fledgling organisation, with talks in mid August. There was unhappiness among some Beefplan members with the results of these talks and a splinter group developed. This group of independent farmers maintained protests outside plants for a good part of September and nominated three spokespeople to represent them in talks convened by the Minister for Agriculture. These bilateral talks lasted in excess of 40 hours and an agreement was reached resulting in the setting up of a beef task force and changes concerning bonus payments were also made.
Hopefully things will settle down and time will be allowed for the agreement to be both implemented and worked through. Factories are well aware that a small number of protesters could bring a plant to a halt in future. An upshot of the protests is that there is now more political awareness and interest in policy among farmers. I don’t recall farmers being as invested in the outcome of talks in my lifetime.
The protests ushered in a new breed or maybe even a new era of farm politics and mirrors what has been happening in politics at local and national level with over 20 years with the rise of independents. It’s a challenge for the more established groups and how they adapt to this new environment will be interesting.
Milk price has come back somewhat in the last few months and, while that is difficult, it could be much worse. Figures from the latest Irish Farmers Journal/KPMG Milk League demonstrate this. Carbery suppliers are now receiving roughly 0.20c/kg of milk solids more than most other suppliers. At the most extreme suppliers to Carbery are getting 0.40c/kg of milk solids or 3c/l more than the big players Glanbia and Dairygold. Those figures exclude a 0.5c/l SCC bonus that West Cork suppliers receive for milk with a Somatic cell count of less than 200 SCC. A high proportion of West Cork farmers are getting that as well and it’s a major financial lift. Comparing the average herd between suppliers the Drinagh August milk cheque will be better by €1,752 compared to Glanbia.
Music and sport
In uncertain times it’s more important than ever to have a social outlet from the farm. Music and sport have a longstanding tradition, as two of the mainstays in providing a positive distraction from farming. There was plenty of excitement in Ardfield at the weekend, as the locals won the West Cork Junior A football final for the first time since the club was founded in 1892. It was a game I couldn’t lose, as the locals including two of my cousins were playing Ballinascarthy, the club I was involved with for 20 years. Needless to say there was plenty of banter floating around in the build up. After seeing the seriousness of the protests at factory gates over the last two months it was great to witness such a happy historic occasion. What’s rare is wonderful.