Ireland today, August 19, 2013

Last week’s weather gave enough rain to keep crops growing and enough dry weather to get grain in. Unfortunately there were enough hours of wet weather, that Met Eireann, the national weather bureau, had a ‘National Weather Warning’ on their website. ‘Status Yellow. Blight warning. Blight conditions are expected to continue through Wed and Thurs, with very limited opportunities for spraying. Issued Wed, 8/14/13.’ People here take their potatoes very seriously.

Grain in dealer's yard, Tullow

Grain in dealer’s yard, Tullow

Apparently the hot dry weather encouraged spring grains along in good shape, making them ready for harvest a little early. Livestock farmers are aware of a looming shortage of feed. So, there has been a good market for chopping grain before it is ready for the combine and putting it into bunker silos. Another option has been to buy grain from the neighbor’s combine and treat it with urea or a preservative to mix with forages come winter. And the straw market is busy too. Livestock farmers are buying straw for winter bedding and, perhaps, as a forage. As you can see from these pictures, a lot of grain is being delivered into grain depots, with huge piles of grain on paved yards, waiting to go into driers, then into storage. Some farmers have their own driers, and then can store grain at home to sell later. Most put the grain from the combine into a trailer, and haul the trailer to the mill with their tractor. So it is common now to see tractors and trailers on the roads moving grain to market.

Grain in mill's yard

Grain in mill’s yard

With world-wide grain prices moving downwards due to what looks like a huge US corn (maize) crop, harvest-time prices for grain are less than what Irish tillage farmers were hoping for. At Teagasc this week, a friend told about her husband taking a load of winter barley to the mill. He had planted the right variety, and fertilized it right, in order to meet the standards for malting barley. It was rejected because it was a little too high in protein. And the mill would not give a price on buying it as feed barley- he could unload it, and find out the price later. A couple of loads of his, and other farmers’, were rejected due to high protein. This farmer did bring in loads later in the week that met the malting specifications. Barley that will be used to make beer is malting barley. The protein has to be just right in order for the beer’s head to form properly and the fermentation to be just right. Higher protein would be good for a barley going to feed animals, but there is a good premium (about $25/T) paid for malting barley- the feed market is a poor second. Some tillage farmers have contracts with grain buyers, or maltsters, but the grain must meet the specifications. Maltsters take barley and allow it to germinate, and then dry it to stop the seedling from growing any further. This gets the chemical process going to turn the starch in the grain into a sugar that yeast can ferment and turn into beer. Beer and whiskey are big industries here in Ireland, with lots of jobs depending on moving these ag-based products onto the world market.  And this foreign trade is just what the Irish economy needs.  Think Guinness stout and Jamison Irish Whiskey, to name just a couple.

Nice group of Freisian heifers

Nice group of Freisian heifers

There is high interest from farmers with suckler cows to switch to dairy: there could be 20 times more profit per acre. Suckler cows are the same as a beef brood-cow operation. Cows are bred to produce a calf, and then usually the calf is sold in the fall, so only the pregnant cows are over-wintered on the farm. The cow may be a dairy cow, or part-dairy so they will produce a lot of milk, then bred to a beef breed to get some meat onto that calf.
A big article in the ‘Irish Farmers Journal,’ 17 August, 2013, page 28, ‘Profit driven suckler to dairy conversion,’ describes one farmer’s experience. David Kirwan had been a suckler farmer for 32 years, and had developed a good herd of 120 cows. He has been working with Teagasc and the Irish Farmers Journal in a beef production demonstration program. A son will be starting at one of the Teagasc ag-colleges this fall, and David is wants to set up the farm so it could create an income for a second family, in case after graduation, the son wants to come back and farm. If not, he would hire a full time employee or manager.
David applied for dairy quota, and got enough for 55 cows in the first year, and 75 cows this year. He plans on milking 150 in the next few years. Dairy quota ends in April, 2015. The barn was in good shape, but he had to add on, put in a parlor, milk room and calf barn. Plus he made some improvements in lanes and roads to get cows to all of the paddocks, and to get additional drinking water into the paddocks. So far that has cost him about $160,000. Quota was another $80,000, dairy cows cost $200,000 (about $1800/head). He sold his beef herd for $250,000. So, his total investment now is about $1300/cow.
David’s familiarity with cows is obvious when you get into the details. The first batch of dairy cows that he bought was 55 pregnant dry cows, all from one herd. This year he bought another 29 cows, plus 27 heifer calves this year (so they freshen in spring 2015- when the dairy quota ends). In the first year of selling milk, he averaged over 14,000 lbs of milk/cow, while feeding 1.1 T of concentrate per cow. (The national average is about 11,500 lbs of milk/cow, so the difference is due to pasture and cow management.)
David and his wife Isobel thank their Teagasc advisor, Seamus Kearney for helping to guide them. They do not think they should be held out as a ‘how-to’ example of converting to dairy. But they are hopeful that the changes they are making will improve the long-term profitability of their farm.