A month ago, we were in a bad state here on our farm because of the drought. While everyone loves the sunshine and warm weather, like we had for most of August, farming still needs rain every now and then.
During the heatwave, friends joked with me as I worried – ‘Yerra, farmers are never satisfied, when it’s dry ye want rain and when it’s raining ye’re still complaining.’
Of course, there’s an element of truth in that conversation. The relationship between the absence of grass in our paddocks and the lack of moisture from the clouds was never more self-evident than this year.
In former generations, it was mixed farming everywhere or ‘all kinds of everything’ as one relation of mine put it. Sixty years ago, we grew sugar beet, oats, potatoes, malting barley, turnips and mangolds on this farm. As well as cows, sheep and pigs were also kept. So it was on most farms all over Ireland.
After the country joined the EEC and prices for farm produce went up, a wave of specialisation spread across the land. It was probably inevitable. Just as the pace of life was speeding up, the era of the horse as the main means of farm power was disappearing.
Tractors brought mechanisation and farmers tended to specialise in one type of farming: milking cows, rearing beef or sheep or tillage. That trend has continued and the other huge change we have seen in recent years is consolidation, which in reality is just a word for expansion.
Time was when a farming family could survive and have a decent enough lifestyle from 50 acres. Nowadays, a farm holding of double that is considered the very basic minimum. Time moves on, and there’s no point in looking back through rose-tinted glasses and longing for ‘the way we were’.
It never ceases to amaze me how neighbouring farms divided only by a stream can vary so much in terms of soil composition. I suppose it goes back to the Ice Age – some things are just meant to be believed, though not understood.
Anyway, nature in all its magnificence never stops surprising and rewarding us. Fields that were brown and foxy a month ago, covered with a ‘thatch’ of white and crisp grass, are now green once more. Lush mightn’t be an apt term in the month of October, but the transformation is stunning.
When I see the horrific deaths of so many in Somalia and Ethiopia and parts of Kenya because they’ve had no rain for four years, it causes one to stop and ponder.
I regularly overhear comments like ‘We’re only a drop in the ocean, what we do makes no difference’, but surely ’tis better to light even a small candle rather than curse the darkness?
The argument goes that the world’s population is increasing, therefore more and more food is needed, so ‘drive on’ in terms of more and more production. It’s a vicious circle of course because the more we interfere with the natural world in terms of polluting water, air and soil, the less productive land will become in the long term.
I don’t know what the solution is – the best brains in the world cannot solve the scourge of world hunger and ongoing famines.
What can I do about it? Me, a middle-aged farmer in a parish in East Cork? Very little on a global scale in reality, but yet we all must make an effort.
Lately, I’ve met a few farmers who have converted their holdings to an organic production system. I like the idea but just don’t know if it’s practical for us at this time.
Conventional farming, especially dairy farming for milk production, relies a lot on inputs. To make the grass grow better and faster, artificial fertilizer – called ‘bagged stuff’ in years gone by – is widely used. Cows are then fed concentrates or meal, or dairy nuts as they are called.
The more grass, the more milk, the more profit. Increasing the cows’ intake of meal yields more milk and more profit.
Sixty years ago, the Shorthorn cow was the favourite on Irish dairy farms. A good Shorthorn cow could yield maybe 1,000 gallons of milk in a year. The breed has largely gone and been replaced by multiple dairy breeds giving two and three times the yield.
If we decided to ‘convert’ the farm to organic production, cows would basically have to be fed grass, hay and silage. Organic meal can be used but the prohibitive price of this means it’s not widely used. No artificial fertiliser can be spread on organic farms. The only nutrients available for the soil are lime, slurry and farmyard manure(dung).
Cows and other farm animals are not ‘pushed’ to produce more and more and animal welfare is given a very high priority. Routine giving of preventative medicines and/or antibiotics to cows is not allowed – then again, that’s a policy I would be in full agreement with.
People, including many farmers, will argue with you that organic farming is going backwards – yes, maybe it is going back to nature – who has a problem with that concept?
Critics argue production and yield will drop, maybe so, but if input costs like fertiliser and feed disappear, a lower income will not mean lower profits.
At present, consumers pay higher prices in shops and supermarkets for certified organic foodstuffs. In an economic depression or recession, will people be prepared to continue to pay more for organic food?
Well, that’s a question no-one can answer with certainty – in the past there has been a certain type of ‘snobbiness’ in regards the purchasing of higher-priced organic food.
I just love the connection between food production and the soil and the whole idea of being kind to the land. Going organic is a big decision, not something to be rushed into, so let me think about it and study it closely.
We are heading to mid-October as grass growth slows down somewhat, but our cows and other stock are still grazing away happily as their bovine ancestors have done here for many generations