Tuesday 20 August 2019

Beef men descend on Clogh

FINDING WORDS to describe a cow is a bit like trying to sum up the merits or otherwise of a wine. For the accomplished critic, it is not enough simply to call a nice bottle of Bordeaux 'good' or 'poor'.

So try swishing a few of these adjectives around your palate the next time you lean on a field gate and assess the four-legged talent. How about ' long'? Does that fit the bill? Or 'square'? And if calling a well made heifer 'square' suggests approval, then what is there to say about her hapless sister who does not measure up - 'frumpy' perhaps? Or ' higgledy-piggledy' maybe?

The sun came out in Clogh last Friday afternoon and, like so many squirrels emerging from hibernation, farmers descended on the holding of Cathal Crean at Woodpark from all quarters. They arrived from as far away as Derry and Westmeath at the invitation of Teagasc.

The agricultural advisory service presented one of its farm walks, the sort of occasion that brings the concept of the hedge school back into vogue, with real hedges. This was learning under a blue sky, presented to an audience of landholders all eager to learn the secret of turning beef cattle - be they square cattle, circular cattle or polygonal cattle - into ready cash.

To assist them, John Keating and the rest of his Teagasc team had stands scattered around the fields, with knowledgeable experts ready to broadcast at each stand. The speeches pouring from the loudspeakers were backed up by boards illustrating the statistics of efficient fertiliser application or of stocking rates - a phrase that has nothing to do with nylons - or of whatever.

It was all very impressive technical stuff, delivered with easygoing authority by the accomplished lecturers of this most open of open universities. But it was noticeable that, like the bold pupils at the back of every school class, there were those among the crowd whose attention wandered. All they wanted to do was look at Cathal Crean's stock, the cows in the nearby paddocks were that good, that long, that square.

' Youthful,' observed one shrewd observer asked to explain the appeal. 'Strong and loose,' concluded another. 'No hanging udders,' pointed out a third. It was left to speaker Adam Woods from the 'Farmer's Journal', however, to come up with the ultimate accolade: 'It is a functional cow we are looking for.' That's the word, 'functional'.

Cathal Crean's herd are not contenders for pedigree rosettes. His animals are the product of pragmatic breeding rather than the contrived co-mingling of lengthy blood lines. The animals that attracted so much admiration from the cognoscenti are a cocktail of British Friesian, Limousin and Charolais with the odd hint of several other breeds.

The blend is effective. Over the period 2008 to 2011, Cathal's output, in terms of kilos of beef per hectare rose from 523 kilos to 689 - short of target but still a significant improvement not sniffed at. As well as increasing the amount of meat produced, he also managed to raise his gross income per hectare by close to 60 per cent - no wonder so many fellow farmers came looking for tips.

Those present for the walk were given some insights into the hard work needed to achieve such gains. Making the best use of cheap grass in the fields ahead of expensive forage in the slatted sheds is an important part of the strategy. And so is a ruthless attention to detail when it comes to selecting the 100 bovine mothers used to produce the animals which yield all that beef on the 110 hectares at Cathal's disposal.

So, the functional cow is not just long and square and generally good looking, she also has to be able to produce a baby a year. The functional cow has to fit in with a regime that demands calving be concentrated into the months from January to March. And the functional cow must be able to produce enough milk to give her offspring a good start in a life that will, in all likelihood, end in the meat factory less than two years after birth.

One constant during the chat at Woodpark last week was the effects of the recent bad summer. Friday's walk was originally scheduled for August but lakes of water dotted the fields of stubborn draining Macamore marl forcing postponement. The ground the visitors walked on, when they were finally admitted a month later than planned, remained often uneven under foot, poached by the hooves of the cattle.

Out host insisted that the constant rain did not knock him too much out of his stride, though extra attention was required in managing the land.

Others were more forthcoming about the horrors of the unseasonable monsoons. One beef man from Kilmore spoke of how his reserves of silage were gobbled up by stock that had to be brought in under cover four times during the soggy period from May to August, where they might never be confined to barracks at all in a normal year.

At least September has offered some respite, thank goodness.

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