Our fodder crisis caused by poor farm strategy as well as weather

We need a smaller beef herd and an emphasis in dairy on premium products like cheese and ice-cream, writes Victoria White

Our fodder crisis caused by poor farm strategy as well as weather

The first loads of fodder ordered from the UK by Dairygold arrive today.

Our cattle won’t say no to the 2,500 tonnes of hay and haylage. But those of us gifted with more reason should say no to a farming system which has relied on imported fodder twice in five years.

Back in 2013, with the fodder trucks were rolling in from Britain and France, I made a reference in this newspaper to the Indian meal which was imported into this country during the Great Famine.

The parallels are still obvious: A monoculture challenged by a climate-related event which leads to starvation.

The Irish peasant farmers of the 19th century had no choice but to rely on the potato to the exclusion of most other foods.

Today’s farmers have choices but clearly they are fewer and fewer and less good land they have.

Our management of our farming industry, under EU rules, has been appalling. Even before the abolition of milk quotas, Stephen Cadogan was writing in this newspaper

that the land was “already over-stocked”.

Today there are over 300,000 more cattle than there were in 2015, with an overall rise of 6% estimated for this year. Munster has the greatest concentration of dairy cows, hosting 77,000 more since 2010,

although there are only six counties in Ireland which host more than 77,000 in total.

On the same land. Except the land is not the same. This year it is significantly worse.

The winter has been so wet that huge tracts of farmland are officially classed as “saturated”. Those fields have yet to be ploughed and in many areas the spring sowing has not even started.

Rainfall averages were breached last month in most parts of the country with the reading at Roches Point particularly extreme, at 164.7mm as against an average of 78.1mm.

Research by Conor Murphy at Maynooth University shows the last decade to have been the wettest recorded in the last 300 years, with winters 2018 and 2017 the wettest of the wet.

How are farmers to work this sodden ground? How are they to afford to feed cattle which are still housed?

Even if the cows are in the fields, where is the slurry of more than 7m cattle to run off on land which can take no more moisture?

Given that the increasing winter rain-fall is a demonstrable fact, why did no-one in Government shout “stop” to the plans of the dairy and beef sectors to expand their herds?

Why do we not have a firm legislative basis for future planning in farming instead of the industry-generated Food Harvest 2020 and Food Wise 2025?

Why are they not interrogated for their sustainability in a changing climate? Why are they not integrated with the Water Framework Directive?

Agriculture is responsible for the majority of the pollution of our freshwater sources.

The number of rivers deemed to be of high status has halved since 1987 and the impacts will be felt by us all, farmers included.

Our land is being challenged these days in ways we can’t predict. This never-ending polar winter has been a disaster for the farming sector, not to mention a tourism sector relying on the Easter break.

Like the eternal winter of 2013, it seems to have been caused by a disruption of the air systems over the North Pole due in part to the melting sea ice.

In an example of the “feedback loops” climate scientists have always feared, by which climate variation becomes climate catastrophe, a wind system above the North Pole which is referred to as “the polar vortex” has split in two.

This has allowed warm air in and cold air out.

What has resulted is a sudden and massive rise in temperatures in the Arctic which have been more than 30 degrees above average this spring and included nine days when the temperature was above freezing.

This is only the third time such a warming pattern has happened and the other two were both in this decade, 2011 and 2013.

The polar vortex has split before but scientists describe this year’s split as “deeper and longer than normal” and have blamed the persistently higher temperatures at the North Pole for disrupting the wind systems.

A scientist from the Danish Meterological Institute explains that while there have been warming spikes in the Arctic right through history, “the baseline is shifting upwards.

The atmosphere is warmer and so is the ocean.” You and I are looking out of our windows and we’re saying , “This is weird”. In Ireland it’s not so much “global warming” as “global weirding”.

The only certainty our farmers can have when it comes to our weather is that it is becoming increasingly uncertain. Yet we have a farming strategy made for stable, favourable weather.

We have a farming strategy made for Cloud Cuckoo Land.

Ireland is the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, per person, in the EU and is one of only four countries which will not meet its EU emission reduction targets in 2020.

Emissions specifically from agriculture are still rocketing, driven mainly by the increase in the dairy herd. The industry has produced a lot of green-wash about our carbon-efficient cows but the truth is that our cattle produce more greenhouse gases per cattle-derived calorie than is the European average.

Farmers know, however, that the atmosphere is global, not national. Even if our Government did step up the plate on greenhouse emissions, nothing might change for farmers on the ground.

For farmers and farming strategists, what we need is adaptation. We have a dairy industry based on the myth of continuous expansion to compete with New Zealand in providing baby milk powder to China.

Milk prices been volatile while individual farmers have invested more and more in their product with less and less security of getting a decent return.

We need an entirely new business model for farming which is robust enough to withstand the horrible shocks which the weather is certain to deal us. We need a diversified farming sector with a return to tillage.

We need a smaller beef herd and an emphasis in dairy in distinctive, premium products which we can produce better than anyone else, from butter to cheese to ice-cream to yoghurt.

It is crucial that 2020 is seen not only as the year Ireland broke its climate commitments but also as the year the EU Common Agricultural Policy was reformed to pay farmers properly for their essential role as custodians of the land.

An Taisce has reported that some €400m of the pittance meant to be paid to farmers for this work under the last CAP was redirected by the Department of Agriculture.

Yesterday’s government commitment to support the importation of fodder for farmers because of the bad winter underline the plain fact that how the land is used for the production of food affects us all and is an issue on which all of us should have a say.

Those truckloads of imported fodder are a symptom of a broken agricultural system which will end up impoverishing us all.

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