Farmer writes: Hard to find a voice of reason in clamour over suspect BSE case
When Ciarán Lenehan first heard the news about BSE, his first reaction was to search Twitter for voices of reason amidst the sensationalist clamour.

I’m standing in the corner of a Kepak chill, pondering the bleak outlook surrounding my very-immediate future.

The white-walled fridge-room is empty, save for a handful of researchers, a butcher and 10 boxes of beef. The whirring fans have only just shut down; it’s shudderingly cold.

Earlier that week we’d slaughtered 30 experimental bulls. Now the task was to dissect their corresponding cube rolls; a joint comprising the first five ribs on the hind-quarter. Its ratios of lean, bone and fat give an accurate representation of total carcass composition.

We struggle through it and retire to the canteen for sustenance. Ah, sweet heat. I try in vain to crack a boiled egg with yet-to-defrost fingers. My phone squeals, a message pops up and the numbness quickly dissipates. BSE is back.

The chatter begins. Never was there a more apt setting to hear such news. Around us, ringtone frequency increases notably; farmers and agents with questions and answers.

I jump to Twitter – an excellent barometer for both the seriousness of a story and the public’s opinion. It isn’t good. Sensationalist headlines litter the tweet-o-sphere.

The terms “suspect” and “positive” intertwine dangerously. People are “kissing goodbye” to beef prices and international trade agreements in less than 140 characters.

Like many, I know next-to-nothing on the topic. Undertaking a PhD has taught me the importance of proper evaluation. No, sit tight keep quiet and find out the facts.

There’s still nothing new on Twitter. I wade through the hundreds of negative reactions for truths, but it’s no good.

I’m drowning in a pool of ill-informed speculation and gossip. It’s reached the UK now. I’m reminded of the local power-walking forty-somethings, looking over the fence into a naughty neighbour’s.

“You’ll never guess what he’s gone and done now...”

Finally, a factual article from an informed source surfaces on the Irish Farmers Journal's site. As suspected, there had been excess hot air blown into the story initially. Clickbait is a valuable currency, and it rained from the sky with the news of BSE. The matter could have, and should have been handled better in terms of informing people. The initial hours of damning headlines will not have helped Ireland’s invaluable reputation. Though flames were quickly fanned, what do they say about first impressions?

Farmer Writes: making the most of the good conditions as calving starts
Seven new arrivals have landed on Bill O'Keeffe's farm in Kilkenny, while farm covers are sitting at 1,200kg DM/ha.

Calving has started a few days early in Clara with seven new arrivals to feed already. All have arrived healthy and well and the calved cows are out grazing full-time. With the amount of grass on the farm after the mild winter and the fodder situation where it is, we will try to take every opportunity to keep cows out to grass over the coming weeks.

Our plan was to open the pit of maize silage next week to buffer feed to the milking herd as it increases in number, but we might just leave it closed for another week or two and get as much grass as possible into the milkers instead if conditions stay reasonably good.

Overall farm cover is sitting at an unprecedented 1,200kg DM/ha with very few covers under 800kg and a half bag of urea has gone out across the whole farm this week. We will leave slurry for the moment until we get some ground cleared of grass. We will also start with some of the lower covers to try to clear ground as quickly as possible to get slurry out on it and get it back growing for the second rotation.

Temperatures are due to get down to low single figures for later this week and next but with grass as good as it is, the risk for us is wet weather rather than cold weather. The grass is out there, it’s all about being able to utilise it properly, rather than walking it into the ground. We might need the maize silage more in March or April or even the summer.

Half of the maiden heifers went out to grass last week and are doing really well out. We will keep reviewing the situation with them as the spring progresses. We have a few options to feed out silage bales to them if conditions take a turn for the worse so it’s just a case of seeing how it goes and adapting as we move along. It might feel like April but the calendar is still only on January, so we will proceed with caution.

We have some stables on the farm that are idle this year so we have them power-washed and disinfected. The plan is to put small batches of calves into them as they are born for a few days before moving them on to the bigger sheds.

This should work well, with each day’s batch of calves spending a few days here in the nursery and then moving to whatever group they will be reared with.

We have a crate for the loader to make it easier to move the groups of calves around the yard so this should take most of the heavy lifting out of it. The stables will be cleaned out and disinfected after each group of calves to keep disease under control.

IFA nomination

Finally, thanks to Kilkenny IFA for nominating me to the IFA national farm business committee at the AGM this week. I’ll try to give this committee the time, energy and attention is requires over the coming years. Maybe we’d all be better working with the organisation – we have to improve it and make it stronger rather than chipping away at the edges.

We’ve all invested heavily in the IFA over the years. It’s our organisation and it’s always done huge work for Irish farmers.

We’re at a crossroads now with beef production, especially with the threat of Brexit, but it’s difficult to see how any other organisation is better placed than IFA with offices in both Dublin and Brussels to protect our interests and get the best possible outcome for Irish farmers.

Farmer Writes: grazing begins in a most unusual year
Tommy Moyles has bulls grazing as daffodils flower and hedgehogs come out of hibernation.

Since the middle of December temperatures have consistently been between 8°C and 14°C. We were hoping for that kind of weather for most of last April.

In the last few weeks I saw daffodils flowering on New Year’s Day, sycamores budding in December and, to top it off, I saw a hedgehog crossing the road the other night. As always, nature will balance this out and there is a long winter ahead yet.

On the plus side, conditions have been ideal for getting slurry out. It’s unusual to go for the more challenging paddocks first. But with ground dry, a decision was made with the contractor to aim for the hillier paddocks and get them out of the way.

There are only a handful of paddocks that don’t have covers I’d consider good enough for early grazing yet. Most of these were grazed last anyway.

The good weather has made the experience of out-wintering one group of cows rather pleasant. They are on a field overlooking the farm and from there, it looks as if the house and yard are on the edge of the cliff. As un-businesslike as it might sound, going up there is an enjoyable part of the day.

However when the weather turns, forage crops are a different kettle of fish; the thought of going out to move fences daily when rain is lashing down and you’re trudging through mud is not that appealing.

It’s funny to watch the different personalities of the cows in this group come through too. The younger ones race up along the fresh feed at each move while the older cows conserve energy a bit more and pour scorn at their herdmates over-eager carry-on.

There’s about a fortnight left of grazing the forage rape. Maybe there will be a chance for some of the later calvers to stay out at grass once that is finished. It would ease demand for both shed space and silage. It could be an option at least and having plenty of these is key. That’s something we’re reminded of every spring.

Given current grass covers and the fact calving is still almost six weeks away, a start has been made with grazing. The stock bulls have had silage removed from their diet and are putting a hole in the spring grazing rotation planner. Weather conditions will determine whether they will be the only stock grazing or not.

The 2018 calving season was probably the most pleasant I had experienced. Workload was the lowest it ever was for that time of year. This happened by accident rather than design.

Ten years ago when we finally had sheds worth talking about at the cow yard, we made a move to calve more from the last week of January. Half the herd would be calved by the first of March and the stragglers would go into April. With fertility issues in bulls this date slipped and, while at first I cursed it, I’m now glad of it.

With fragmented ground, it was never possible to get all calves out early. If weather didn’t go our way, this created hours of work each day. Work that there wasn’t financial reward for.

On paper, calving earlier to match grass growth sounds good but reality can be different. Dad and myself have spoken a lot about why we weren’t doing things like this years ago. Maybe it’s just experience but adversity makes you adapt more. Last year certainly proved that.

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Farmer Writes: beef plan deserves all the support it can get

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Farmer Writes: beef plan deserves all the support it can get
Donegal suckler farmer James Strain gives his thoughts on the beef plan meeting that took place in Letterkenny and says the group deserve all the support it can get.

Like a substantial number of beef and suckler farmers, I spent last Wednesday night at the beef plan meeting in The Clanree Hotel in Letterkenny. Although I cannot say I agreed with everything that was said, you would have to say that the top table made some good points, were extremely passionate about what they were saying and deserve every support that can be afforded to them.

The main voices at the top table were Eamon Corley, a suckler farmer from Co Meath, Kieran Logue, a Donegal man now farming in Meath and Micheal Rafferty from Monaghan. The beef plan movement is based around an 86-point plan. First of all, it aims to get the backing of 40,000 farmers.

The membership fee to join the group is €10. The fee is to allow the group get legal recognition and for this to happen everyone needs to be a member. Secondly, it is to cover room hire for meetings along with administration and secretarial fees.

Fair share

Put very simply the aim of the group is to try to help the farmer achieve a fair share of the retail price for beef through a cost of production plus a margin. The slogan is “don’t let greedy retailers and ruthless factories drive you out of beef”.

One interesting statistic among many that were relayed at the meeting, one that I do not think will come as a surprise to any beef farmer, was that in the 1970s a farmer was getting 40% of the retail price for his or her beef. Now the farmer gets 19%.

The formation of producer groups and purchasing groups in every county is high on their agenda. The formation of producer groups will mean that farmers will have more of a voice through larger numbers and although each group will be separate, they will be able to work together to control cattle supply.

The idea of the purchasing groups is to lead to cheaper inputs. I know one could say all these things have been tried before, and you would be right, but probably not on such a grand scale.

Stand together

Probably the main aim of the group is to get 40,000 farmers to stand together, to stand united and to stay united. Even if that means turning down the factory agents when they ring offering you a great price to fill out tomorrow’s kill. That has definitely never been done before!

It is also looking to get independent factories to kill cattle so that the group can then market the beef themselves. It was said that it has already spoken to Chinese customers who are sitting ready to take Irish beef and at a much higher price than is currently being achieved.

Farmers’ markets were spoken about as a means of selling direct to the customer and reducing the volume of cattle going through the factories. It was said reducing the number of dairy-bred calves being taken through to beef would also help the beef trade.

A couple of possible solutions were to relax live export rules to allow more calves to leave the country and to explore the possibility of putting more calves into grass fed veal production.

Discount beef

We were also told at the meeting, and I have no reason to doubt its accuracy, that only three supermarkets in Britain stock Irish beef - Tesco, Asda and Sainsburys. There it is sold as a discount product, 27% cheaper than British beef.

Now I do not know the ins and outs of why this is, but I do know that Irish milk powder is a highly sought after product the world over for infant formula and other such products. It is a high-end, high value, premium product, seen as one of the best, if not the best in the world. Grass-fed Irish beef should be no different.

It is a high-end premium product and should be treated as one. If it is being sold at a discount then it would seem that Bord Bia or somebody in charge of marketing our beef is failing us!

It is going to take an awful lot of work and effort to try to change what happens within the beef trade. A couple of huge companies control everything and seem to be able to do what they want.

Fifth quarter

It is laughable when you think about it, the fifth quarter as far as I am aware is worth over €100 to the factory. The farmer does not get paid a penny for this even though apart from stomach contents and a few other bits and pieces every part of the animal is saleable. However, the farmer still has to pay a clipping charge if he sends in a dirty animal!

The few men that have started this beef plan are trying to do something, it’s a huge undertaking but maybe just maybe, if every beef farmer joins the plan and gets behind them, then maybe they can achieve their goals.

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