Money over ethics? Why I fear for the future of industry I love

In his weekly column, John Arnold says he is worried for the future of Irish farming, dairy farming in particular
Money over ethics? Why I fear for the future of industry I love

HANDS-ON JOB: Young boys take an interest in the milking operations of a Dublin farmer in the 1950s. Picture: Colman Doyle

AS a farmer and food producer, I am sometimes critical of all the Rules and Regulations to be complied with.

The amount of what we call ‘red tape’ has increased ten-fold in the last few years. Every time an animal here on our farm gets an injection or a dose it has to be recorded — written into an Animal Medicine Register. The date the ‘medicine’ was given as well as the volume and name of the treatment must be logged.

If the substance given could in any way be injurious to human health if it entered the food chain, then the withdrawal period and date of the remedy must also be written down.

On average we have between 60 and 70 animals on our farm so there’s a fair bit of book-work to be done in this regard. If the vet ever has to call to a sick animal the same procedures must be observed.

All these regulations are part and parcel of modern farming in Ireland. Though they are time-consuming and repetitive, the law is the law and must be obeyed. I suppose we simply must fully realise that we are producers of milk and potentially of beef, and as such aim to produce top quality foodstuffs which we can stand over. They call it the ‘farm to fork’ trail and it’s good for farmer and consumer.

I am, however, worried for the future of Irish farming, and of dairy farming in particular. Don’t get me wrong in regards food quality; I have no qualms or reservations about what leaves Irish farms. What worries, even saddens, me is the changing face of the milk-producing sector.

Up until a few short years ago, the production of every Irish dairy farm was limited by a Milk Quota — introduced in 1984. The farmer was only allowed produce volumes as set by the individual Farm Quota.

The Quota regime is now ended and literally the sky is the limit. At present on a world-wide scale there is a huge demand for dairy products including butter, cheese, dairy spreads and milk powder. With the brakes of the Quota removed, the dairy sector has ramped up production hugely in the last few years, with total milk output up by close on 50%. The plan is that such production levels will continue to rise over the next decade.

With a temperate climate, which is ideal for grass-growing, Ireland has some obvious natural advantages for milk production. Over the decades the supply and demand for dairy products on global markets has fluctuated wildly but recently demand has outstripped supply.

Forty years ago, the thinking in Irish farming was that a herd of between 40 to 50 cows was needed to support a family farm. Nowadays a herd size of close on 80 is the minimum Holy Grail. Herd size continues to rise as the number of actual dairy farmers continues to fall.

We have always prized ourselves in farming terms as ‘green’, natural and certainly a million miles away from the ‘factory farms’ of Holland, New Zealand and the USA. The cause of my concern is that as our cow numbers continue to rise, some of the related farming practises are alien to my thinking.

It is estimated that in 2018, as many as 10,000 young new-born calves were disposed of in this country. I use the word ‘disposed’ but could just as easily say slaughtered or even dumped.

With dairy herds growing rapidly — herds of between 500 and 1000 cows are now commonplace — the calf is becoming an unwanted bye-product. Cows are bred to have a calf simply to kick-start their lactation or milk producing term. The milk is the desired product whilst the calf is seen as a kind of ‘collateral damage’ which needs to be disposed of.

Most of these thousands of new- born calves are cross-bred, therefore not deemed suitable for beef production. Next year perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 calves will have to be got rid of in Ireland.

I am not a fool and can understand that certain types of calves will never turn into beef — no matter what they’re fed — but simply killing and disposing of the carcasses is wrong, in my opinion.

I can remember talking to older farmers who told me of the Economic War in Ireland in the 1930s when England refused to take our beef. Farmers were paid ten bob a head to slaughter calves. Similarly, a few decades ago our Government introduced a Calf Slaughter Scheme, but these were introduced to counter problems outside of our control. The so-called over-production of calves nowadays is a planned result from Dairy Expansion.

I’m not so naïve as to think farmers should return to the days of sitting on a three-legged stool, milking a few cows in a white-washed stall with a dung heap outside the door. Neither do I have a yearning or longing for an era when farming was seen more as a ‘way of life’ rather than a business. No, those days are gone forever and rightly so. Farming is a business and has to generate profit,to provide a decent standard of living for the farmer and his or her family.

Profit is vital too for education, reinvestment and expansion in farming. All very fine, but does the end always justify the means?

Readers may say I’m old fashioned and living in ‘my father’s time’. Well, my father died when I was four so I never knew him as a father or a farmer. When I started farming here nearly 45 years ago I received no formal Agricultural Education. Nor did my mother May Arnold or our farm workman Paddy Geary sit me down at the kitchen table and tell me the facts of farming life. No, they were with me for six years — my apprenticeship you might say — and during that time I watched, observed and learned. From them I learned about how to respect animals and the land.

By their example, I got to understand how to treat animals, young and old, healthy and sick, with decency and compassion. I also learned that the animals we have create income and profit for us, but they are not machines, conveyor belts or simply ‘production units’.

The very idea of killing young calves because they are ‘surplus to requirement’ is morally wrong and shameful to my mind. I often sat up for hours by night on a straw bed under an infra red lamp trying to coax a sick animal to take a drink, trying to keep the life in it. Sometimes they lived and sometimes they died — farming is about nature and nurture, that’s the very essence of our occupation.

God knows, I often paid a vet to try and save an animal — sometimes the vet cost more than the value of the beast.

Readers may say “tut, tut” when I speak of morals in farming. They may say it matters not a whit to an animal whether it lives six days, 36 months or 12 years as it has no understanding or intelligence.

Leave morals out of it so, but shouldn’t ethics matter in farming? Ethics in farming and in life are not based on expected reward or feared punishment. Ethics are simply about right and wrong. Profit never, ever justifies wrongdoing.

A few years back, there was widespread condemnation of ‘factory type’ farming practises carried on in Holland and New Zealand — are we now nearly as bad?

My question and my worry is ‘What’s it all for? Is bigger always better? I don’t think so because in farming terms sustainability has to be the real way forward.

It’s something that gets plenty of lip service but little attention. I begrudge no one a good way of living and condemn no one for making profit and creating jobs and exports.

Is the new brave, brash, expansionist face of Irish agriculture also a cold, calculating and solely money-based occupation? Is ‘Herod type’ farming now acceptable?

When is enough, enough and when does need become greed?

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