Editorial: does every farmer really need to own a tractor?
In this week's editorial, Justin McCarthy asks if farmers should share tractors, looks at the labour shortage in dairying and the Department's response to our report on inspections.

Our Machinery section this week features a tractor special. Within it is a listing of the various tractors available on the Irish market, along with their performance details and – most importantly – list price. With the typical 80-120 horse power model now costing from €70,000 to €100,000 depending on the specification and brand, the purchase of a new tractor will represent one of the largest investment decisions most farmers will make.

It is also worth noting that on its own, a tractor will deliver little, only acting as the powerhouse for the implements that are attached. Therefore, to extract value from the machine itself, further investment in equipment is required, whether it be in a loader, mower, fertiliser spreader, trailer or tillage equipment.

In the last few years in particular, we have seen great strides in the quality of service provided by agricultural contractors. The professionalism of the service and the superior capacity of the equipment and technology most contractors are investing in has brought change at farm level. Probably one of the best examples of this is the fact that it is now the exception rather than the norm to see farmers harvesting their own silage.

However, like house ownership, there is a long tradition of Irish farmers having to own their own tractor – of course the stark difference is that in most cases the tractor is a depreciating asset, while the house should at least retain its value. Questioning this mentality should be done against a backdrop where:

  • The bulk of Irish farmers are small-scale operators where the output and profit-generating capacity of the farm are totally disproportionate to the investment required in having a tractor on the farm – even a secondhand machine.
  • Advances in new technologies have seen the output capacity of the modern-day tractor far exceed what the demand is on these smaller -scale farms, leaving the tractor sitting idle for large parts of the year.
  • There is of course a valid argument that, at present, these farmers have little alternative but to have their own tractor sitting in the yard for 365 days of the year. Getting a contractor to carry out smaller tasks on the farm such as topping, feeding animals over the winter and spreading fertiliser is difficult and such services are often not available.

    However, the necessary technologies are available for this to change and to allow machines to move from farm to farm as required. We have seen in other industries how the development of apps has allowed for increased sharing of assets. In the hospitality industry, the introduction of Airbnb has allowed individuals share their most prized asset: their home. Meanwhile in London, we see similar technology used allowing city dwellers share their cars with total strangers.

    Is it a stretch too far to imagine a service where a part-time farmer books a tractor over an app to carry out work?

    The question is: can these same technologies be used when it comes to farmers sharing assets such as tractors? Is it a stretch too far to imagine a service where a part-time farmer books a tractor over an app to carry out work during the course of the weekend or where a tractor/loading shovel that is working on a tillage farm in the autumn moves on to a livestock farm to feed animals over the winter?

    Fears of the past around how machines were being driven, their locations and even their misuse can now all be easily addressed by technology. Driver performance can be monitored remotely and rated, GPS technology can pinpoint machine location and restrict movement and in-cab controls can be overridden remotely, allowing the machine be disabled or performance restricted.

    Irish agriculture has a long tradition of being exceptionally well serviced by machinery manufacturers and dealers always being to the forefront in ensuring the sector has had access to the latest technologies. There is clearly now an opportunity for them to look at how technology can improve the utilisation of their machines on farm by creating a new ownership structure and, in doing so, create a new market with the potential to generate revenue from machines sitting in stock.

    There is also a farm safety dividend with farmers having access to the proper equipment for carrying out various tasks.

    Dairying: attracting young people into dairying

    As the economy approaches full employment, attracting young people into farming is going to become more difficult. When we consider that there is already a labour shortage in the dairy sector, the industry really needs to pull up its socks if it is going to keep growing.

    Attracting new people into the industry is one way of doing it, but as Aidan Brennan reports, improving the situation for existing employees to retain them within farming is also needed.

    We can’t and shouldn’t expect people to work where facilities and processes are inadequate. This really added to the workload this spring. It is interesting to note that over 25% of dairy farmers surveyed said that calving and calf-rearing facilities were inadequate. Springtime is busy enough without adding extra work and stress by not having enough housing.

    But it’s not all about sheds either. The best facilities in the world won’t retain staff if they feel they are not respected, given responsibility, time off weekly and shown appreciation for their work.

    Being good at managing people is a skillset that farmers can and must learn, much the same as managing grass and cows. Who is going to help them learn these skills?

    Department: farmers deserve fairness and respect during inspections

    The Department of Agriculture must be able to guarantee that the necessary oversight, monitoring and appeals structures are in place to ensure farmers are treated fairly and respectfully when engaging with officials. There is no doubt that this is the case in the vast majority of interactions.

    This week, Thomas Hubert continues his investigation into a case where a number of farmers are making serious allegations against a specific official.

    This week’s report on the chain of events outlined by Carlow farmer Derek Deane follows a similar trend to those outlined by others.

    We have been contacted by farmers in other parts of the country making similar claims. We continue to encourage farmers who feel they have been the victim of any of the issues we have identified to contact us by email at thubert@farmersjournal.ie.

    Meanwhile, in response to our coverage, the Department has urged any farmer with a complaint to contact its Quality Service Unit. Receiving such information is obviously a critical part to building a case against any individual.

    Greenhouse gases: meeting agreed targets will be difficult

    It will require effort and commitment to reduce Irish agriculture’s greenhouse gases to meet the binding commitments that have been set – difficult but not impossible.

    The just-released analysis by the special Teagasc team dealing with this critical area is highly informative and realistic.

    The aim is to get from the current 20m tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent to 14.95m tonnes by 2030. While the challenges are real, the capacity to reduce Irish agriculture’s net contribution to greenhouse gas production is real and achievable. Methane production (mainly from ruminants) can be stabilised through increased efficiencies in feeding, breeding and management. Nitrous oxide, mainly from fertilisers and tillage, can be significantly reduced with current knowledge.

    Forestry and soil management can, through sequestration and more careful management of organic soils, absorb CO2 in the case of forestry and prevent its release in the case of organic soils. Finally, bioenergy from either livestock or plant material can offset fossil fuel emissions.

    Government action has been hesitate in some areas – to put it mildly – but the methods of achieving our goals and obligations, while continuing to increase output, are clearly possible from the Teagasc work. At the same time, the international carbon efficiency of Irish agriculture should continue to be stressed around the various negotiating tables.

    Heatwave advice – are your animals getting enough water?
    Water intake will be much higher next week, so it is important to ensure that facilities can deal with increased demand.

    Temperatures are set to soar next week and will undoubtedly put pressure on water supplies, with low grass dry matter levels also contributing to higher demand. Failing to provide animals with a sufficient source of water will firstly hit production performance, but it can also have more serious consequences with the risk of dehydration and heat stress greatly increased. In the worst cases, there could be a risk of mortality if animals are left without water for a prolonged period.

    As such, it is important to check that water sources are capable of meeting demand. There are two avenues to be mindful off – piped water to troughs and natural sources of water. Looking at the latter first, field drains that up to now supplied a source of water are in many cases likely to be drying up. Drinking points at watercourses may also need to be tweaked if water levels reduce and fencing prevents animals from accessing water.

    Massive demand from dairy cows

    The highest demand will be seen in large dairy herds. Teagasc advises that dairy cows will drink 90-140 litres of water daily within the region of 50% of consumption three hours after milking. Satisfying this level of water demand is a big ask and can come under serious pressure if one of the following factors is limiting;

  • If the water pipe is too small there is a risk of reduced water pressure at the trough.
  • If the trough is too small there will be an inadequate reserve and bullying at drinking could occur, as well as a drop in milk yield.
  • If the ballcock is too small then the trough will fill slowly.
  • How to calculate water flow

    Assuming that the daily demand per cow is 80 litres, this means an hourly flow rate of 13 litres/cow/hour is required, according to Teagasc.

    That is; 80x50%/3 = 13 litres/cow/hour.

    Therefore, for a herd of 100 cows, the flow rate needs to be approximately 100 cows x 13 litres/hour, which equals 1,300 litres/hour or 22 litres/minute.

    How to check the flow rate on your farm

    When it comes to checking the flow rate of water on your farm, Teagasc advises the following:

  • Mark the level of water in a trough.
  • Tie-up the ballcock and empty about 25 litres from the trough.
  • Release the ballcock, hold it down and measure the time it takes in minutes to refill to the original mark.
  • Divide the 25 litres by the time taken to refill. If it takes a minute to refill, then the flow rate is 25 litres/minute.
  • If the flow rate measured is less than required for your herd, your water supply system needs to be improved. Farmers are advised to check the flow rate of troughs around the farm to ensure cows are getting enough water.

    Where water reserves have come under pressure in the past during periods of low rainfall and high temperatures, then it is worth exploring alternative plans to ensure water is available when required. There has not been much talk of local water reserves rationing water as of yet, but this is also worth keeping abreast off.

    All animals will have increased demand

    It is not just dairy cows that will have a higher demand for water. Suckler cows, beef cattle and sheep will also have increased intake. In normal weather suckler cows with a calf at foot will drink in the region of 50-60 litres of water, with high-yielding cows having a significantly higher demand. The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs lists year-old cattle as consuming in the region of 24-36 litres of water, with two-year-old cattle drinking up to 50 litres. Lactating ewes and dry ewes will require 8-12 litres of water, with lactating ewes at the higher range, while lambs on a high dry matter diet will require in the region of 4-7 litres of water.

    Good week, bad week: winners and losers in farming this week
    The Irish Farmers Journal reviews the week that has been – who had a good week and who endured a difficult seven days?

    Good week for

  • Dairy farmers, as May milk prices have begun to creep upwards in time for peak milk production.