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: a year to forget but one that must be remembered
Twelve months after he suffered from severe burnout on his Cork farm, Harold Kingston looks back at how the pressure had built up and how he was supported to get through a dark time.

The past year has been a year I may want to forget, but I need to remember. Readers of the Irish Farmers Journal will know how spring 2018 affected me and anyone who saw me on the Late Late Show recently will know how I can still feel the emotion of it 12 months later.

Looking back on that first Friday in April 2018, the day I wanted to sell my entire dairy herd because I was completely burned out, it would be easy to just focus on that moment, but in reality the pressure was building since the previous summer.

Losing three animals to TB out of 400 sounds like I was lucky it wasn’t worse. Unfortunately, the bigger problem was I was suddenly stuck with 100 animals that were supposed to be sold in August/September plus autumn calvings still to come. I knuckled down to get cull cows fattened before the other stock needed housing and sourced the extra feed I’d need.

Two clear tests followed, leaving no clue where the infection came from, or whether it even was an infection. I cleared the decks of surplus stock a few days before Christmas, having had buyers already lined up. I was tired, but it was job done and pressure off.

The country went daft stockpiling bread and milk again

As everybody knows, then the spring came in name only. Ophelia in October 2017 was still fresh in the mind when we got the “Beast from the East” snow in February/March last year. The country went daft stockpiling bread and milk again.

Those two events on their own weren’t a problem. As humans, we have adrenalin and a community to deal with a sudden crisis. A crisis doesn’t cause burnout – monotony and loneliness does.

It is true that the events of 4 April 2018, that day when my world came crashing down, are what people can focus on. Dramatic events bring on the adrenalin; it even makes good TV.

As farmers, irrespective of gender, we are expected to be physically strong and just get on with it.

From the outside, people could see I was busy, like every farmer. Because of my IFA position, I was getting calls for interviews about the weather and the fodder crisis.

I was getting comments like “I don’t know how you have the time and energy to cope with everything you’re involved in outside of the farming”.

The reality was that the “outside of farming” stuff was what was keeping me sane. The farming drudgery from the constant rain and associated workload was sapping my energy. The weight of responsibility to my stock and business was draining my mental energy.

Watching my neighbours with empty grass fields and unplanted crops only increased the feeling of hopelessness as I imagined the whole country going down the tubes like me.

I now know that this support is just as important to provide the mental strength to know you can cope with a crisis

I know the importance of a good support network in a crisis. Whether it’s cattle breaking out or a sudden illness, there is always someone you can call for help.

I now know that this support is just as important to provide the mental strength to know you can cope with a crisis.

I lost my dad unexpectedly this January. The extended family and neighbours mobilised instantly, like we take for granted in a rural area. It was a week, two weeks later, that I really found the support network that no one should ever take for granted. The people who had been ringing or calling for a chat to make sure I was OK in the spring of 2018 returned to ask the same question again.

Farmers are great in a crisis. I had been advising people about the importance of asking for help and looking out for our neighbours. It turns out that was good advice.

Farmer writes: changing to meet market demands
Selling means persuading people to buy what you have, whereas marketing means finding out what people want and creating it for them, writes Kieran Sullivan.

“‘Tis as broad as ‘tis wide”, said a very experienced Galway sheep farmer when I brought up the subject of having lambs ready for Easter at a recent farmer meeting.

The extra costs, never mind the extra work, mean early lambs are likely to leave similar margins to mid-season lambing flocks. To make it worthwhile, a sale price of at least €7/kg is necessary. At the time of writing, factories are quoting €6.70/kg, meaning the man from the west is probably right.

This raises the question of how and when we sell our lamb (or beef for that matter), and the wider issue of selling versus marketing a product.¸

I now know that this support is just as important to provide the mental strength to know you can cope with a crisis

As a rule of thumb, selling means persuading people to buy what you have, whereas marketing means finding out what people want and creating it for them.

Wider consumer trends and food choices are also something us farmers are only mildly aware of, but they have a major influence on farm-gate prices.

We might know about veganism because of the noise its supporters make, but a Tesco representative said on the business pages of this paper a few weeks ago that consumption of meat and dairy has not dropped despite this noise. Other trends, however, are having a bigger influence and are mostly under the radar. Over the decades, consumers have moved away from simply needing food to eat. Many now want a “dining experience”.

Put this together with working longer hours, meaning less time to prepare and cook a meal from scratch, and you have a large market for ready-made meals with plenty of seasoning to make it seem like more of an experience.

For supermarkets to service this market, all they need from farmers and processors is cheap, plain, raw materials: beef, lamb, and vegetables.

A neighbour used to grow lots of potatoes years ago but gave up when his business customers demanded more and more big, bland spuds which they could then add flavour to and sell on to the public as fancy crisps and pre-seasoned chips. The value they added to the basic ingredient never increased the price paid to the primary producer.

This brings us back to the traditional Easter market for lamb. Like turkey at Christmas, people eat more lamb at Easter. But consumption is now spread more evenly across the year, and consumers expect every kind of dining experience to be available at a low price all year round.

While seasonality will continue to play a role in price, it looks like the peak will become less pronounced in the coming years.

The value of Easter lamb has been eroded before our eyes and we need to start thinking about adapting our enterprises to meet market demand

We can no longer afford to ignore these trends and other wider considerations. The value of Easter lamb has been eroded before our eyes and we need to start thinking about adapting our enterprises to meet market demand, rather than continuing to produce what we have always produced just because we have always done it like that. If that means producing lambs and cattle to a certain spec, and getting them out the gate at a different time of the year, then so be it.

Finally, best of luck to our neighbours the Kiersey family who will be at the West Waterford Festival of Food in Dungarvan next week with their food start-up called Freezin’ Friesian. The family produces rolled ice-cream and frozen yoghurt from their own dairy enterprise, and are a prime example of how food can be marketed rather than sold.

Farmer writes: crops taking a hammering with chilly weather
For a year that looked like being very early, it’s no longer true, writes Gerald Potterton.

It’s often said that a late Easter means a late spring and it’s certainly true this year. Now, I know dairy cows have been out grazing in magical Dairyland since Christmas – that’s if they were ever in – and I’m tired reading about all the grass that’s being measured daily.

Frankly, I don’t see it. Yes, we have some grass but it’s very slow and the crops have stood practically still for the past fortnight or so. For a year that looked like being very early, it’s no longer true.

Some two-row winter barley looks pathetic and good wheat has tipped, with septoria taking advantage

Now it has to be said, this isn’t necessarily any harm and I’d even prefer slow crop growth to a wild flush but, nonetheless, crops have taken a hammering with the continually chilly temperatures.

Some two-row winter barley looks pathetic and good wheat has tipped, with septoria taking advantage. Our hybrid barley has weathered well but, in truth, I never believed that winter barley was suited to the dauby early spring Meath soils. Wheat yes, all the time, but barley? No. It’s a light land crop, for the kiddies down in the Promised Land around Athy.

I did once suggest to the Irish Tillage and Land Use Society that it would make an interesting, if nerdy, topic for the winter conference but they didn’t bite

Considering we’ve only had 650mm rain in the last 12 months, the Kildalkey fields quickly became very wet in March, which surprised me. The water table shot up quicker than Venezuelan inflation, to its seasonal norm. I didn’t think there was enough rainfall to do this.

It was as if seasonal hydraulic forces were brought to bear on the rising water table but as I’m no hydrologist, I don’t understand why.

As a matter of fact, I did once suggest to the Irish Tillage and Land Use Society that it would make an interesting, if nerdy, topic for the winter conference but they didn’t bite.

Wet holes and springs are problematic for us and field drainage to alleviate them has only mixed results.

The spring barley was eventually sown on 12 April into an excellent Athy gold standard seedbed in two heavy fields. Quite why conditions were so good, again I don’t know, but I suspect it was a legacy from last summer and the fact that it followed a cover crop.

Fertiliser

The Sprinter drill is a combine one so the fertiliser went down the spout but I don’t like a combine drill as fertiliser corrosion should ideally be limited to the spreader. It bugs me to see subtle signs of corrosion already setting in on the drill fittings after just three seasons. Fertiliser and water (to wash down) and lots of electronics are a potentially disastrous combination.

So, you ask, what are we doing with a combine drill? Good question. The trainee management thought we should, that’s why

I have a friend who won’t even buy a variable rate computerised fertiliser spreader for this reason. A bit over the top, but I’d limit all fertiliser application to just the Bogballe spreader.

So, you ask, what are we doing with a combine drill? Good question. The trainee management thought we should, that’s why. But it was a good job the trainee management wasn’t around when I cut open the bottom of a suspended 600kg fertiliser bag and nothing came out. Then it becomes like a time bomb. I had to give it a dunk off the hopper rim resulting in a fertiliser avalanche, splattering into every nook and cranny on the drill…

But to be positive, I have to say I bonded better sowing the barley with the Fendt 724 than I had when mucking in the beans. It was well capable of pulling the drill with 3t of seed and fertiliser at 17km/h. Quite why this was so different to sowing the beans, again I don’t know but now I’m a reasonably happy Easter bunny. And that’s as good as it gets with me.