John Arnold: Farming and environment CAN work hand in hand for planet

Farming can and will continue, but we cannot continue, lemming-like, in just producing product for cash, so says John Arnold
John Arnold: Farming and environment CAN work hand in hand for planet

A climate change protest in Dublin last Saturday - John Arnold says farming and the environment must unite in the future

TWAS a brilliant year for grass here on the farm - but the beetroot crop was disappointing, to say the least about it.

For grass to grow abundantly, you need rain at the right time and heat at the right time. Other things, like ‘food’ for the grass-yielding plants, are needed too, but moisture and heat are vital ingredients. Too much of either can be a disaster, especially at the wrong time.

Several of our fields are what they call ‘sharp’, with a lot of small stones just under the surface. In a normal year with plentiful showers the grass grows as green as anywhere else in these fields. A dry summer with drought-like conditions can be a disaster.

Around 25 years ago, we had a heatwave, I think ‘twas in July, well half of the farm went ‘foxy’ as the grass simply died and withered. Luckily enough, we’re never overstocked with animals so we managed through until rain came that August. The power of nature is brilliant and after two weeks with daily moisture, the fields were emerald green again.

I suppose in time the plant experts will ‘breed’ new strains and varieties of grasses that, when munched, chewed and re-masticated by bovines, will give off no methane gas. I know that at present research is ongoing in the whole area of methane reduction.

Between cattle belching and farting and gas coming from slurry tanks, methane is a big problem and a major environmental issue. I am following the COP26 talks in Glasgow with interest but, to be honest, a lot of it is posturing and kinda ‘anything ye can do we can do better’.

I’m not a moral theologian, but I do agonise over some of the arguments and counter-arguments being made in the climate change debate. When one looks at the level of emissions coming out of Ireland, from transport, industry and agriculture combined, it’s like a drop in the ocean in comparison to major polluters like China, and when we see rainforests being chopped down to grow beef cattle to make burgers, one might say our efforts are in vain.

Many even say we’re wasting our time and effort here in Ireland doing anything about global warming because we’re such an insignificant net polluter. Is doing nothing an option for us?

We can argue that if there wasn’t a cow or a bullock left on this Emerald Isle, the difference ‘twould make on a global scale to methane reduction would by so tiny that it wouldn’t be noticed. That’s where my dilemma is!

Murder is wrong, murder is illegal - yet daily in the USA 44 people are murdered and in South Africa each day 57 people die violently, killed by others. Because those awful things happen all over the world doesn’t make them right or morally acceptable, does it?

I just wonder is climate change and global warming much more than an economic argument? Has the generation of people who live on earth in this era, at this time, in this year of 2021, the ‘right’ to destroy the world and ensure that in a century or two civilization will be no more?

I can hear people say, ‘Hold on now, Arnold, no one wants to do that’. Fair enough, but then if that’s the reality, inaction or doing nothing is really and truly not an option.

Protesters take part in a rally organised by the Cop26 Coalition in Glasgow demanding global climate justice. 
Protesters take part in a rally organised by the Cop26 Coalition in Glasgow demanding global climate justice. 

In recent weeks, the COP26 talks have brought the issues of global warming, melting ice caps and desertification to the fore. Hopefully when the Glasgow summit ends next week it won’t be back to business as normal with the pious platitudes stored away in dusty filing cabinets until COP27 comes around in a few years!

As a farmer, I am very conscious of the way the argument goes between increasing Irish agricultural output and caring for the environment. Up until a few years back, Irish farms were limited in terms of production. In dairying, for example, each farm had an allocated Milk Quota and producing more than that Quota could mean either getting no payment for the milk or even getting fined for over-production.

With the abolition of Milk Quotas in 2015, it was a case of ‘Go forth and multiply’ as the demand for dairy products continues to grow.

Our number of milking cows has gone up by close on 40% in the last half-decade. Government policy was upwards and onwards and ‘consolidation’ was the buzz word.

In the 1970s, a farmer was said to need 40 cows to make a decent living -I suppose our present herd of 40 is a throwback to the relics of auld decency but it suits our system, the average herd in Ireland is now close on 100 cows.

With cow numbers increasing, fertilizer and imported feed use also increased. I’m not blaming, condemning or casting aspersions on anyone who got into more cows - they were answering the Department of Agriculture and Teagasc’s call to do so. Many have invested heavily, again with the ‘imprimatur’ of all the leading experts.

Dairying and farming in general is at a crossroads, says John Arnold.
Dairying and farming in general is at a crossroads, says John Arnold.

Now dairying and farming in general is at a crossroads. For generations, ‘one more cow, one more sow, one more acre under the plough’ has been lauded as the way forward. Whether this unfettered expansion can continue is debatable.

We pride ourselves in our ‘sales pitch’ as being a land of ‘family farms’ with grass-based production but is the traditional family farm now becoming a rarity?

We bring thousands of tonnes of soya bean meal and other products from halfway across the world to feed our cows and cattle - does this fit in with our image - an image that has sold our butter and cheese everywhere?

Our water quality is suffering from run of from fertilizer and slurry and this has to be controlled. A huge expansion in organic farming is suggested and planned, but this type of farming will suit just a minority. In truth, I’m not sure where we go from here!

Much of the globe suffers still from hunger and we are a food-producing country so there’s another conundrum - should we just expand away and to hell with the consequences -and the begrudgers?

That’s not a viable solution either, but the big question is, can commercial farming go hand and hand with environmental protection?

Sorry. that’s not a real ‘question’. because in fact we have no option but to ‘marry’ the two. Nobody wants Ireland to become a land of briars, bachelors and bullocks, nor do we want a country covered with evergreen trees, or Eire becoming a tourist ‘playground’ for the rest of Europe. 

Farming can and will continue, but we cannot continue, lemming-like, in just producing product for cash. We must have a mix of food production, income support and care for the beautiful country we have. 

We in Ireland can do our bit to help the global environmental crisis that is looming and farmers won’t be found wanting. 

To quote the song from Oklahoma, ‘I know we belong to the land and the land we belong to is grand’ - long may it remain so.

Oh yes, the beetroot situation, well, I’d ate pickled beetroot ’til the cows come home. Every year we usually grow the beetroot from seed. Last year I pickled 27 jars of it and I suppose consumed most of them myself over the winter!

Well, this year, for a change we got little plants in individual peat pots and planted them out in fertile soil back in June. They grew mighty with fine tall stalks - about 50 plants survived out of six dozen planted.

Last week I harvested the lot, ach mo leir, brutal was the only word to describe the yield! Some of the beetroots were as big as golf balls, others the size of table tennis balls, and the majority no bigger than marbles!

When I had them topped, boiled and peeled and soused in vinegar, I got just one jarful. I wouldn’t mind but we had mighty onions, lettuce and even tomatoes this year, I think I’ll stick to growing grass for the cows. We have them in by night now on silage and when they finish grazing the last paddock next week they’ll be in winter quarters full-time ’til Spring.

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