In parts of this country, at this time, there is huge competition between dairy and tillage farmers for land to rent.
To comply with ever tightening nitrates levels the dairy guys are desperately seeking to expand their land area in order to retain (or even increase) cow numbers and, it seems, are prepared to pay very high conacre rents to achieve this.
Meanwhile the financially poorer tillage farmers are unable to compete, and the tillage area is in decline. Relationships between the two camps are fraught. But while this sort of tension may be new in an Irish context, it’s certainly not new in the good ole US of A.
In the classic western, Shane, pioneer sodbusting farmer Joe Starrett (he may have relations of the same name in Donegal but they’re award-winning dairy farmers) is intimidated by the cow-ranching Ryker brothers who want Starrett off what they see as their land.
Starrett and others like him had every right to be there but the ruthless, hard drinking Rufus Ryker wants the sodbusters gone. No corn at all.
In a typical western way, it all becomes a bit rough and certainly not something we would like to see in the new cow lands here.
Mysterious gunfighter Shane rides in to Starrett’s homestead and shortly crosses paths with Ryker.
In the final very tense saloon scene, the ultra-cool Shane draws his Colt revolver quicker than grease lightning and shoots Ryker’s merciless hired gunslinger, Jack Wilson, dead.
Then he shoots the two Ryker brothers, peace is restored, Starrett can plough away and Shane rides off into the Wyoming sunset. Happy days – but we can’t be doing that here.
Or if you prefer another, more civilised American example of cowman/ploughman hostility, there’s the musical Oklahoma! from which comes the memorable lines:
‘Oh, the farmer and the ploughman should be friends
‘One man likes to push a plough
‘The other likes to chase a cow
‘But that’s no reason why they can’t be friends.’
If it were only that simple. From a sustainable farming perspective, the conversion of Ireland’s farmland into ever more monocultural dairy paddocks is not good. Tillage crops, from so many viewpoints, are much more desirable. I’m thinking of biodiversity, carbon capture, nitrates, native grain and protein production and so on.
Our tillage industry is in the national interest. More grass and more milk are not. Glanbia are quite fat enough when they can remunerate their CEO with six million euro this year. Glanbia has interests in the Irish tillage sector as well.
It’s going to be difficult to sort this problem out. The market is the market and even State intervention to protect the tillage industry may not work. The Tillage Incentive Scheme is a welcome stopgap, but some well thought out support is needed.
The Dublin brake needs to be put on dairy farm expansion. I’m all for new young entrants with 120 cows, but as for these new supersized dairy herds? I greatly admire drive and enterprise but in this case it’s overdone.
In Oklahoma! a truce was worked out, and while the farmer and cowman learned to co-exist, they weren’t besties.
Maybe that’s the most we can hope for now. But the cowboys in Government will have to develop policies to help the sodbusters and tax dairy paddocks.
Finally, I have to say that, about 30 years ago, I was persuaded to buy IR£250 of shares in Avonmore and it’s been the best £250 I have ever spent – the return has been phenomenal.
You’d think I’d be more grateful – I even have share voting rights. But I don’t vote. All those cowmen might shoot me. Or employ a Jack Wilson.