Opinion

Drystock farmers should focus on what they can control

The profitability or otherwise of drystock farming in Ireland has rarely been out of the news of late. I always struggle to reconcile the constant noise about poor profitability with the almost total antipathy towards implementation of proven best practice at farm level in terms of system selection, grassland management, calving pattern, breed selection etc.

These factors – which are all within a drystock farmer’s control – have a far bigger bearing on drystock farming profitability than reasonable price fluctuations in response to market conditions, weather volatility or the perceived support or otherwise of the Agriculture Minister.

On a recent train journey from Co Roscommon to Dublin I was sadly able to count on the fingers of one hand all the drystock farms that, in my opinion, appeared to have any plan regarding their grassland management. I only saw two farms with what appeared to be a paddock grazing system. The benefits of this practice were explained to us in the 1950s. Most dairy farmers have adopted these. Why not their drystock counterparts?

In spite of what has been a spectacularly favourable Autumn for doing so, there was no evidence of any drystock farmer trying to build up grass to reduce cost & increase animal performance over the coming months. These observations were made on the marshy banks of the Shannon all the way to the dry rolling plains of Meath & Kildare through which the train also passed. Location has nothing to with it. Attitude has everything to do with it.

There was a cocktail of breeds on view on almost every farm. The diversity was nice to look at but what markets were these guys targeting with a range of animals all maturing at different ages and weights with differing meat quality?

In the last week I was further horrified to see drystock farmers topping or baling grass. What October to March grass growth rates can they now expect as a result?

Why are the research & advisory messages being ignored by the majority of drystock farmers? Do the messengers have a case to answer here? Surely Teagasc could have bombarded local radio over the past month with adverts about “the why” and the “how to” of building up Autumn grass etc?

I suspect that the disregard for profit-lifting research at farm level hugely weakens drystock farmers negotiating position with their processors. “It’s hard to help the man who will not help himself”. Can we blame processors or indeed the Minister of the day if they adopt this view?

In fact, to my shock and amazement I once heard a prominent member of a farming organisation chastise a Teagasc researcher for preaching about better grassland management & lowering feed costs. His theory being that if the processors knew we were lowering costs, they would then drop prices! I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

If drystock farmers expended as much energy on implementing proven profit-lifting ideas inside the farm gate as they do in protesting about their lot, would it pay them better? I am pretty sure it would. Indeed there is usually one good example of this in every parish in Ireland but unfortunately that farmer’s progress tends to get dismissed on the grounds that he/she “has better land”, “always does things differently” , “less rainfall at that end of the parish” etc. Attitude is everything.

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