Down on the farm, R&D serves as the sharpest spade
Today's dairy farmers rely on apps and online forums as much as traditional knowledge.
This could translate into a €12 million improvement in profitability for the State’s dairy herd, writes ALISON HEALY
How times have changed down on the farm. Thirty years ago, an entire farm family could have spent days filling a pit of silage or fencing a farm. Now machines do that work in the blink of an eye, giving the farmer time to download the latest fertiliser-spreading app or track somatic cell counts before heading to a discussion group to hear about the latest developments in genomics in dairy-cow breeding.
While young farmers once relied on parents and neighbours for their knowledge, now they can pick up tips from farmers hundreds of miles away, thanks to online discussion forums and social-media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
The motto of today’s progressive farmers seems to be “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”, and their knowledge in areas such as grass growth and breeding in recent decades would baffle their grandparents.
Teagasc, the State research, advisory and education authority, has to be at the forefront of these scientific and technological advances. Its director of knowledge transfer, Dr Tom Kelly, says there is no doubt about the contribution this research is making, not only to farmers’ incomes, but to the economy in terms of driving production.
He says it is critically important for the Government’s Food Harvest 2020 expansion plan that Teagasc focuses on areas where we have a competitive advantage.
While we may wince at the cliche of the Emerald Isle, the quality of Irish grass is one of our major competitive advantages and our farmers are the envy of their counterparts abroad for the length of time they can leave cattle outside, thanks to the nutritional quality of the grass.
Like all State organisations, finding the money to do this research is always a challenge but Teagasc has been steadily increasing its spending on research in recent years. Budget 2013 provided €112 million to the organisation and €64.7 million of that is earmarked for research. This compares with €62.59 million in 2012 and €61.7 million in 2011.
“With ever-reducing staff resources in Teagasc, the major challenge is to prioritise activities and to leverage the help of the resources of the wider agricultural and education professionals who interact with farmers,” Dr Kelly says.
Teagasc uses a network of farms around the State to keep farmers up to date with its findings. Its advisers work with more than 45,000 contracted clients and almost one-quarter are in 700 beef and dairy discussion groups organised by Teagasc.
They meet regularly to discuss efficiency and best practice. Sheep discussion groups are now getting off the ground and will look at areas such as improving lamb output per hectare through higher stocking rates, better grassland, health and breeding.
Years of research at Teagasc’s Moorepark facility in Co Cork has resulted in the dairy economic breeding index (EBI), a profit index for dairy cows. This index looks at factors such as milk production, fertility, calving performance and health, and produces a figure. The higher the cow’s EBI, the higher your profit. Teagasc has found that a farmer with 100 cows who increases the EBI of the herd by €6 per cow could generate €1,200 more profit.