My Farming Week: Michael Fitzmaurice, Williamstown, Co Galway
This week Patrick Donohoe speaks to newly elected TD Michael Fitzmaurice about his farming and contracting businesses.

I farm: “65 suckler cows on 65 acres as well as some rented land. I run a herd of Limousin out of British Friesians. I sell the calves mostly as weanlings in Castlerea and Roscommon marts. If one is a bit of a straggler, I’ll keep them for longer to feed them.”

System: “I wasn’t overly happy with how the herd was looking so I started fresh in 2007 or 2008 bucket feeding calves getting them up to where they needed to be. I do all right but I’ll never win farmer of the year.”

Family: “I’m married to Maria and I have three kids; Aisling (14), Patrick (12) and Nadine (8). Patrick is showing a great interest in the place. He’s always looking to help out.”

Contracting: “I do a bit of mowing, baling, slurry and turf cutting. It can be hard to get paid at times but farmers are the salt of the earth. As soon as they have money, they’ll pay you.”

Politics: “I’m an independent candidate. I’m my own man. I want to go in there and be different to how it has been done. I’ll be pushing things like rain water harvesting which would save rural dwellers and farmers hundreds of euro.”

Concerns: “You don’t need a degree from Trinity College to know that there’s a problem with the beef sector. Something needs to be done there in terms of farmers getting good prices consistently. Not the place where we have one good year, one bad. You can’t plan around that. Also, I’m worried about the investments in dairying. It’s the buzzword now but a lot of money has been spent, I hope it all works out okay. You have fellas buying robots without having ever having seen a cow.”

Quotable quote: “This isn’t about parish pump politics, I’m here to fight for all farmers in Ireland and for everyone who has been forgotten in rural Ireland. No matter where I go, I’ll always be farming and contracting, it keeps your feet on the ground."

Farmer Writes: plenty of shoe polish to keep our dancing shoes right
A little bit of Lannigan’s Ball is fine now as we negotiate March of many weathers, writes Kieran Sullivan.

The unpredictable weather since the start of lambing last week has meant something of a Lanigan’s Ball for the ewes: they step out, then they step in again.

If out-by-day and in-by-night is good enough for dairy farmers, it is good enough for us mere mortal sheep farmers too.

Being back in the shed at night also means the lambs are off the local foxes’ menu, and thankfully we have not lost any to this ginger predator at time of writing.

What could be helping in this regard is the liberal use of shoe polish. Bear with me on this one a minute. I asked a question on social media regarding Stockholm Tar, which is used on young lambs’ necks and tails when they are left out with their mammies in an effort to discourage foxes.

Shoe polish

Plenty of good sheep farmers offered advice on using it, including how to keep its messy texture from going everywhere.

Just as I was about to go off and buy the Stockholm Tar, one Twitter user said he had been using shoe polish for the very same purpose for years, and it was doing the business for him.

Now, fashions change all the time and there are not many wearing shiny shoes these days so the market for shoe polish is somewhat small.

But I did manage to find some under the sink in my mother’s house, and when that ran out I located more in a shop that sells a bit of everything in the local village.

I am not sure how long the little tin of Nugget Shoe Polish was on the shelf, but its price tag said 55p. In case we are on another new currency the next time I need some, I splashed out and bought two of them.

Lambing

Overall, lambing has gone exceptionally well for us so far. We are halfway through and have an average of just over 2.0 lambs per ewe joined to the ram. Our target before we started was 1.5, so we should hit that at least when all is said and done.

This is our third year lambing sheep (fourth if you count the seven we lambed in 2016) and we have never gone above 1.2 before now.

There have been no major changes in our approach, but we have made a half-dozen minor changes over the past three years.

Ewes now get beet as part of their late-pregnancy diet. We invested in high-quality maternal ewes from two very reputable flocks; we got a loan of two elite terminal rams for 2018’s breeding season. Housing and feed space have been improved and a few other little things here and there have all helped.

Weather

The biggest contributor though has been the most uncontrollable factor of all – the weather. The mild winter meant plenty grass and a shorter housing period for ewes. They are in great condition—averaging a BCS of 3.5 at housing—and they are much less stressed.

So, a little bit of Lanigan’s Ball is fine now as we negotiate March of many weathers, especially since we have plenty polish to keep our dancing shoes right.

Farmer Writes: it's good for the head to visit the inventors shack
The very wet and windy weather put a stop to all fieldwork, so Gerald Potterton took to the workshop.

A box of 10 gauge welding rods and a dozen skinny angle grinder discs please, Pat.” I was in Mortimer Machinery buying what I needed for a workshop project I had in my head.

The very wet and windy weather had put a stop to all fieldwork, though there’s much to be done. But farming has always been about using less productive times like this to good advantage. It’s good for the head as well.

So I’d spend a day being creative in the characterful old stone workshop (1841) and I hadn’t fabricated anything in there in a long time. The blacksmith’s bellows may be long gone but the anvil remains. Neither has the arc welder been replaced with a MIG.

Time was when I used to be always gunterin’ in the workshop making stuff. As a matter of fact, I have quite a few inventive workshop creations to my name, none of which, it has to be said, were awarded worldwide patents. The most notorious of these inventions and perhaps the most useful, was one the children christened the “shaker sheen”.

The shaker machine was developed in 1993 when third baby, Victoria, was proving difficult to put down to sleep. In my desperate babysitting efforts, I’d noticed any sort of rocking motion got even the most reluctant child to sleep. I came up with an idea that involved a 220V electric motor, a 100:1 ratio reduction gearbox and a belt-driven sliding teak cradle.

Sleep

The baby was put into the cradle, the unit was powered up and the cradle oscillated very smoothly backwards and forwards. Even the most difficult child succumbed to sleep. One night, we forgot to switch it off and as a result baby and all slept blissfully through to morning.

But global sales were slow and I own the only production machine ever built. Victoria obviously didn’t suffer too badly from shaken baby syndrome as she is now a stable, well-qualified physiotherapist. However, other parents were less enthusiastic about entrusting their little darlings to the shaker sheen but I did rent it out to a cousin, Norman, with good results.

Other inventions over the years include a low-loader trailer known as the Arab Carrier Mark I, which featured in the iconic magazine Power Farming in 1983. The Arab Carrier series ran all the way up to a Mark V, which I think was a home-built diesel bowser.

More recently, I built a dual wheel changer which is very useful. And also for dual wheels, I invented a new method of attachment but the manufacture of this was subcontracted out to Bruno’s boys – it was beyond my workshop capabilities with high-tech plasma cutting.

Success

But not all my ideas are a success. Recently, there was a meal dispenser which cost a fortune to build. It’s a complete disaster. And a seed hopper for the Fendt Xylon (see machinery page 3) wasn’t much better.

However, nowadays I still come up with ideas but because I’m older and lazier than I used to be, I get Bruno’s boys to build them. The quality of workmanship is higher and, just as in bygone days when the blacksmith’s forge was a sociable place to be on a wet day, it’s always good craic in Bruno’s. But it isn’t advisable to call him a blacksmith to his face.

So it’s been a long time since I spent a day in the workshop – this time fabricating a mobile stand for filling the fertiliser spreader, which I really enjoyed.

Mind you, the hand’s gone shaky with the stick welder so between that and a lack of practice, some of the welds have a distinct resemblance to crow shite.

Farmer Writes: from slurry to electric cars in rural Germany
Farmer and renewable energy producer Thomas Karle shared his experience with participants of a recent biogas training course in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh.

I started producing biogas in 2001, using pig slurry and sugar beet toppings. From 55kW electrical power originally, our anaerobic digestion (AD) plant has grown to 1,200kW since 2016. We now take in residues from others farms: maize straw, grain, wine grapes, vegetables, and pig, chicken and cattle manure.

We store the gas and bid online to switch on the combined heat and power engines when the electricity price is high, usually in the morning and evening.

Listen to "From slurry to electric cars in rural Germany" on Spreaker.

We get a subsidised electricity tariff with a bonus because we also use all the heat from our engines. This is our main income. We run a grain dryer with a 1,000t capacity each season, substituting 100,000l of heating oil. We also supply a district heating network connected to 90% of households in our village, Füssbach. This replaces another 90,000l of heating oil.

Thanks to the power we put into the grid, the village’s electricity is now 80% renewable.

This includes an electric vehicle sharing scheme, with two cars available to all in Füssbach. We want to substitute the second car in each household for short distances.

When people bring me their garden waste, I can tell them: “With this, you can drive a car for 100km or 200km.”

Finally, we use our heat to dry the digestate from the AD in a polytunnel and produce our own organic fertiliser. We then pellet it and sell it in our own shop under the Nadu brand. It is a slow-release fertiliser: you spread it in March and it remains active until September. Its main market at the moment is for gardening and it is not generating a big income. Marketing it takes a lot of time and energy. Some buyers would like specially formulated fertiliser for flowers or tomatoes, but at the moment we only supply it in its natural form.

The next step is nutrition recovery. We have been piloting a plant capable of separating 1m3 of digestate per hour into phosphorus salt, ammonium sulphate, organic material and process water which can be used for irrigation. We have invested in a new €1.2m plant under an EU-funded project to take this to 10m3/h. The running costs are probably €6/m3 to €8/m3 and total processing costs €15/m3.

Recovered nutrients could replace mineral fertiliser, while the main income for this business would come from the solution offered for livestock farmers’ slurry, charging them a gate fee in the future. There is currently too much digestate spread on the fields in Germany, with high associated storage and transport costs.

Fertiliser regulations are introducing more restrictions, and phosphorus levels are too high in the ground.

These innovations have made Füssbach a recognised “bioenergy village”. There are only 100 inhabitants here, but many are young families. People want to live in our village.

Read more

Watch: farmers see biogas plants as cows

End renewable heat and biogas support delays – Bioenergy Association

Can farmers cash in on biogas?