The hidden costs of drought

Recently I was on a dairy farm in south Wexford where the farmer was in dire need of water.

was on the set of the movie ear to the ground. Season 30 believe it or not.

The farmer’s story is becoming more and more common.

Having doubled the number of cows in the past 10 years, he discovered belatedly that the old 30-foot well simply couldn’t cope.

July and August forced him to rely on the grid to the point where he thinks his Irish Water bill could top €10,000 in 2022.

Why didn’t he dig a new, deeper well, I hear you ask.

The answer was clear the day we shot.

The well driller went through 400 feet of blue shale without hitting a drop of water.

The bone-dry slate-blue powder that accumulates around the well is very poor as a water source because this type of rock does not form the natural cavities necessary for the development of aquifers.

Going deeper was a waste of time as the rock type was consistent all the way. So the only option was to move to another part of the farm and start over.

At 200 feet, the driller quit for a day almost as desperate as the farmer. Nobody wants to hire a driller who can’t find water.

Thankfully, persistence paid off the next day, with water gushing 300 feet from the second well.

On the face of it, this could be another example of how far-fetched Irish agriculture is in trying to increase the number of cows.

But when expansion plans were drawn up a decade ago, few farmers anticipated the drought conditions that have since become semi-normal.

Larger herds from 50-year-old shallow wells are half the story.

But when rainfall drops to a third of normal, many problems begin to emerge.

The water level drops, reducing the flow in the wells to the point where it sometimes stops completely.

Warm weather means that goods are more dehydrated.

Normally irrigated pastures have almost no waterlogging, which eliminates another normally neglected source of water.

And it’s not just a problem in the sunny southeast.

Back home, the 300-foot-deep well is also under pressure.

It is not a question of reduced flow, but simply that the demand for grazing cows in such dry conditions is much higher than normal.

In the evenings, the animals stand around large water drinkers, waiting to fill them.

Although there is already a 20,000-litre storage tank that collects overnight stock and collects water from the plate cooler, discussions are now moving towards the idea of ​​reusing the old granaries as additional water reservoirs.

This is just one of the many hidden costs that the summer drought brings to the system.

We blame the summer heat for the huge increase in infertility in the herd.

Last year, the number of cows that did not give birth was less than four percent.

It was a huge disappointment last year when our latest scan showed that the idle rate had tripled to 12% despite bulls being allowed to run with the herd for longer at the end of the breeding season.

It was a shocking turnaround from the first scan, which showed conception rates were better than ever. Making the breeding season more manageable was the main reason for the €80,000 invested in heat-detecting collars for all cows last spring.

The first scan, which showed a 20pc improvement in conception rates, was the proof we were looking for that the money was a good investment.

It was only after this scan that the first of the drought conditions began to bite.

As the pasture became denser, we reacted by supplementing and weaning the cows.

We can only speculate that the cutting and changing of the diet, combined with the heat stress of those weeks in late July and early August, caused a higher than normal level of embryo loss.

Most farmers are currently focusing on the additional costs of breaking down silage stocks and stockpiling feed money in the hall.

An additional 15 kg of silage dry matter and 1.5 kg of feed that we feed the herd costs around €1,400 per day.

But there are other hidden costs that will eat into margins this year and next.

Milk prices are absolutely brilliant right now, but many farmers may find there isn’t much left in the pot at the end of 2022.

Darragh McCullough runs a mixed farming enterprise in Meath.

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