For those who are on the fence regarding global warming, ask any Irish farmer this year and they will point to the exceptional weather events that we have had in Ireland over the past six months as proof that global warming is alive and kicking. Storm Ophelia last October heralded the beginning of a most tumultuous weather system, culminating in one of the latest Springs ever witnessed in Ireland. In some areas, we have had the highest rainfalls and the highest wind speeds on record, all topped off by Storm Emma and the cold Siberian wind system in early March, resulting in the Irish snowfall records from 1982 being surpassed. For a country more used to a smattering of snow on high ground, the several feet that blanketed significant parts of the country came as a shock.
The effect on Irish agriculture has certainly been stark. Every sector from crops to livestock, fruit production and marine has been impacted. Arguably the sector where the effect has been most pronounced is in the livestock sector, where it has been the “non-perfect storm”. Since abolition of the European Union milk quotas in 2015, the government policy of increasing our milk output has resulted in up to a 20% increase in dairy cow numbers in the country, bringing the herd size to 1.4 million. As over 90% of these animals calve in the springtime, early grass growth is essential for the production system to be kept on track. Summer 2017 was particularly wet, which had the result of insufficient forage being produced on most farms. All these factors have combined to result in a startling lack of forage available nationwide. Whilst it may not be unusual for other countries to import forage, in Ireland we have always been self sufficient in this feed source, so the prospect of importation is, and was, a novelty. The Spanish Lucerne, French straw and hay, and British grass and maize silage that were recently imported have alleviated the crisis. As I write, temperatures are rising and grass is visibly growing - let’s hope Winter 2017/Spring 2018 is soon a distant memory, from which important lessons will have been learned.