John Heney: Why I’m not topping my fields until July


Cutting silage is one of the most important jobs on any farm. Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, I ended up cutting mine during one of the few broken spells of weather we had this spring.

he grass had become quite strong and with Met Éireann giving little hope of settled weather, rather than risking it going to seed, I decided to go ahead and cut it down on May 20.

Even though the following day was sunny, the grass was still quite damp going into the pit. But it was very satisfying to see a well-covered pit of silage in the yard so early in the year.

I am hopeful that like last year’s crop, it will turn out fine.

I would have been far more concerned if the grass had been too dry going into the pit, as dry grass can be difficult to compact properly, and this can result in a layer of mouldy silage forming under the plastic cover.

Even though it’s been many years since I lost a bullock with listosis caused by mouldy silage, it taught me a lesson I will never forget.

I now have the bonus of seeing the after-grass, some of which got a good covering of slurry using a dribble bar, recover very quickly.

These fields should be ready for grazing before the end of this month, which could be very welcome, given the on/off growth we are experiencing.

We have been hearing a lot about the EU’s imminent Natural Restoration Law. I find it ironic, perhaps even hypocritical, that the EU is introducing laws to ‘force’ farmers to restore our natural environment, when it was the EU’s own farm policies that were chiefly responsible for most of the damage done to our ecosystems.

I still believe that the vast majority of Irish farmers take their role as custodians of the countryside very seriously and continue to farm in an extremely environmentally friendly fashion.

However, altruism may not be the only reason behind my own low-input system; it has evolved over many decades of mostly ignoring the constantly changing and sometimes damaging high-input policies emerging from Brussels and indeed our own Agriculture House.

While there may be a temptation to say “I told you so” and we may resent the imposition of new environmental laws, I believe that the onus is still on us as farmers to seek more ways to further improve our natural environment.

I recently came across an old picture I took during the REPS 1 programme. One of the programme’s requirements was to defer topping until later in the summer.

This photo showed a myriad of insects and small vertebrates which had accumulated on the deck of the topper, something which I had never seen happen when topping paddocks in May.

It appears that waiting that extra month or two allowed these creatures to develop and accumulate.

The National Park and Wildlife Service tells us, “invertebrate species are the largest component of Irish biodiversity” and are “the most neglected aspect of Irish wildlife…fundamentally important to the working of natural systems” and “the main source of food for many fish, birds and mammals”.

We are also told by the Farming for Nature group that delaying topping will encourage plant biodiversity as it allows the many flowering plants in old pastures such as mine to flower and pollinate, providing improved sustenance for the insects and invertebrates.

So for all these reasons, after a break of many years I have decided to delay topping my grazing fields until July.

If what I have been reading is correct, this change in my grass management system should improve the quality of my grass swath and hopefully result in increased performance from my cattle. Time will tell

John Heney farms in Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary

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