It’s very much conference season for farmers.

It makes sense, there’s a little room on the calendar before the intense workload that spring brings.

Early lambing apart, January is a relatively quiet month. Few calves are planned for the first few weeks of the year. Slurry has to be spread, and yardwork done.

There’s a little ploughing, and some harvesting of beet and potatoes, but if you want to get farmers into a meeting, this is probably the month to do it.

I spoke of Tirlán’s round of meetings two weeks ago, but dairy farmers have also been flocking to the Irish Farmers Journal nitrates meetings.

A round of Teagasc meetings for most sectors are under way too - although the beef meetings took place before Christmas.

Tillage conference 2023.

My itinerary this week took in the IFA AGM on Tuesday, and Teagasc’s national conferences for tillage and sheep.


In 1973, the conflict in Northern Ireland was at its worst. The previous year, the Wales and Scotland rugby teams decided not to travel to Dublin for their Five Nations (no Italy back then) matches. However, England decided to travel and fulfil their fixture.

Forty years ago this week, on Saturday 27 January, Ireland beat England 18-9, a comprehensive defeat in the days of four-point tries.

That evening, at the post-match dinner, the English captain, a livestock farmer named John Pullin, said: “We mightn’t be very good, but at least we turn up.”

On Tuesday, the IFA AGM hosted Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue, and Ministers of State Pippa Hackett and Martin Heydon.

Much like the English rugby team of 1973, they were warmly welcomed for turning up, and then subjected to a few up-and-unders.

The main news to emerge from the afternoon session was that 2022 will indeed be, or rather, was indeed, a reference year for cow numbers.


Tim Cullinan pressed Minister McConalogue very hard for confirmation that the reference year would only apply to the cow numbers of those farmers who choose to enter a cessation scheme.

Minister McConalogue made a lot of reassuring noises, but fell short of giving that assurance. The fear among dairy farmers is that last year’s dairy cow numbers will be a cap.

The reality on the ground is that overall cow numbers will fall this year due to nitrates rules and banding. The key question is whether cow numbers will be capped at a national or individual farm level.


I was also interested in the language used by the minister when talking of the voluntary dairy exit scheme.

If my memory is correct, the preferred phrase way back in 2022 (last month) was a dairy cow cessation scheme - highlighting that a farmer would commit to stop milking cows under the scheme.

The phrase he used on Tuesday was the dairy cow reduction scheme.

Does the changed wording matter? Well, the clear implication is that while individual farmers will commit to completely exit dairy farming, the goal of the scheme is to reduce overall dairy cow numbers.

This may matter in terms of the handcuffs placed on participating farmers and their land. There is a general acceptance that other cows will hardly be allowed on to the fields involved in the scheme.

The question is, will the land be allowed to be incorporated into the grass bloc of another farm as silage ground, thus allowing them to maintain current cow numbers while fulfilling the new more stringent stocking rate rules of banding on an expanded platform? Only time will tell.

Meat on the menu

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar attended the ceremonial part of the day, the evening banquet.

In the doorstep question-and-answer session on his way in, the political correspondents focused on the hot-button issue of the day and week, Paschal Donohoe’s election expenses.

However, he was asked about Coillte’s choice of investment partners; replying that it is a commercial company, while a State-owned one, and his Government wouldn’t be interfering.

He also was asked about his dietary choices. You may recall that his last stint as Taoiseach saw him attend an IFA AGM banquet in the wake of comments that we should eat less meat.

That evening he ate both a Desperate-Dan size steak and humble pie for dessert.

This time, he replied by saying that he probably eats more meat than he should, often eating meat twice a day.

This is the sort of comment you expect from an IFA leader, and surprised the room. Steak was again served, and apple pie.

In his address to the IFA council and county officers, an Taoiseach said it wouldn’t make sense to have farmers wanting to enter an agri-environmental scheme but excluded from it.

How this will equate to action for the 46,000 farmers queueing for 30,000 currently available places is not yet clear.

And just how many farmers may choose to apply for the next tranche is anyone’s guess, but there currently are only 4,000 more places allocated and budgeted for.

Hybrid vigour

The next morning saw a large crowd gather for the Teagasc National Tillage Conference. Over 200 people were in the room, and I understand as many again had signed up to participate online. In the post-lockdown era, hybrid meetings may be a common feature. We've all seen how handy online meetings can be, especially for people who are located in the wrong end of the country for a live event. The Lyrath Hotel may only be an hour from Dublin (and no further from my own home), but it's a long trek from Donegal or Louth. The one thing about a hybrid meeting is that it must run to schedule. That imposes a discipline on the live event, and it became clear on Wednesday that that brings some advantages. Each presentation was succinct and honed, with half-a-dozen slides to be digested in most presentations. It was enough- we were presented with a huge volume of information.

I was struck by the diversity of the presentations and the presenters in the session immediately after lunch. Everything from the benefits of bean crops to following cereal crops to aphid migration patterns to mycotoxin exposure in Irish crops has been investigated by researchers such as Atikur Rahman, Diana Bucur, and Maximilian Shugart. it's great to see so much cutting-edge research, and it's great to see Teagasc attract students and PhD candidates from all over the world. We will all benefit from such a meitheal. Our own Any Doyle was recognised on the day, with his retiral from the Irish Farmers Journal's desk after 33 years as tillage editor marked. His contribution to the sector is incalculable, and I can personally testify that his ability and professionalism is only matched by his consideration as a colleague. he was presented with a beautiful piece of sculpture, but also a new spade, in the understanding that he will be looking at soil structure for many years to come. In many ways, Irish tillage farming is only coming round to Andy's teachings now, with soil health and nutrient availability pre-eminent.

Added value

The following evening saw the Teagasc National Sheep Conference take place. It contrasted in a number of ways with the Tillage event- live rather than online hybrid, an evening rather than a day meeting. To compensate, the conference took place in two venues, Monaghan on Tuesday, New Ross on Thursday.

There was huge interest in the focus on organic farming, with advisor Elaine Leavy and Tipperary farmer Amy Jackson giving an extremely honest appraisal of the challenges and opportunities offered.

The challenges can be summarised as the need for heightened and excellent pastoral care, as organic farming is all about prevention rather than cure. The opportunities lie in marketing to a growing target audience who want to buy their food with a message or lifestyle attached, and are willing to pay for it. Amy and Ross Jackson brand themselves as Lacka farm .Not only are they selling organic lamb both direct and through Irish Country Meats, they are also selling organic malting barley to Waterford Distillery.

With Teagasc's Head of Sheep Knowledge Transfer Michael Gottstein having told the IFA's sheep meeting on Monday that ewe costs of €200/head only leave a margin of a few euro for each ewe, it may be that sheep farmers will have to follow the Jackson's lead and go hybrid. It may no longer be enough to produce lamb, farmers will have to market them too to make a margin.

That won't suit every farmer- the Jacksons are young, savvy and photogenic. And it mightn't be fair, either. Being a quality producer of lamb should earn a living wage for a sheep farmer, but the world isn't fair and it is changing.

All this will have to be put to one side for the next couple of months. The talking will soon be over, and millions of cows and ewes will give birth. Thousands of acres will be tilled and planted, as Irish farmers focus on what they do best.

But always with one eye on the future.