In Search of Techne

Ch 4.4: Agriculture

(c) Roy Johnston 1999

(comments to rjtechne@iol.ie)

March 18 1970

An important book has recently been published by the Institute of Public Administration....by Michael Woods, Director of the Glasshouse Crops and Mushroom Division of an Foras Taluntais (AFT).

This book is important because it represents a first attempt in the Irish context to pose and answer the type of research management questions which arise out of the large and increasing public expenditure in this sector. It is based on a single case-study: the application of the Kinsealy work on the lengthening of the tomato-growing season under Irish conditions to the Irish tomato industry, and the generalisation of this experience to other glasshouse crops.

In 1961 this industry was moribund; it is now thriving. For an outlay of 48,000 pounds over a 10-year period it is possible to show that benefits of 5M pounds were derived, a remarkable achievement.

The key to this success was the planning and organisation of dissemination and adoption of the new methods, with growers' meetings etc. This was relatively easy in the close-knit Rush-Malahide community, so that the rate of adoption of new ideas was high. There was also in existence a ready-made marketing organisation, so that there is no parallel here with the Moorepark cheese problem(1), although there are undoubtedly some leads towards the solution of the latter.

Michael Woods is strong on interdisciplinary research, team work and democratic management. He gives some attention to the obstacles, especially the relationship between research managment and administration: the latter must be kept as servant, and not allowed to dominate. He does not develop fully his ideas on the role of university research, or basic research in general. The latter field, a more difficult one, awaits a comparable monograph.

This book should be on the shelf of everyone connected with the management of scientific research, as well as those engaged in research itself. Not everyone will agree with every assertion of the author, but explicit disagreement, if argued out, will be fruitful.

April 16 1970

It happens regularly that an Irish scientist goes abroad, engages in important and exciting work, and then after returning attempts to keep going along the same lines in isolation, keeping up links with the laboratory abroad. Whether this transplant takes root or not depends on the availablility of local soil and nutrients.

In the case of Dr Michael Kane, of UCD, it looks as if the Irish environment has favourable potential, thanks to the existence of an Foras Taluntais (AFT) as a bridge between basic research and an economy in which the controlled breeding of animals is the basis for survival.

Dr Kane has been engaged, at Cornell University, in the culture of rabbits eggs in vitro (ie, under controlled conditions outside the animal). He has been attempting to extend the techniques developed with rabbits to the culture of eggs from cows.

The outcome of this work, if successful, is the possibility of the development of routine techniques for artificial inovulation, the analogue of artificial insemination. This has profound implications for cattle-breeders, enabling the desired characteristics to be selected from both sides of the pedigree.

It also gives the possibility of controlling the sex-ratio. It is already possible to select embryos for implantation at a very early stage by a non-destructive sex-test, which involves lifting out by micro-manipulation a piece of undifferentiated tissue and examining the chromosomes. The latter is of course destructive, but there is enough redundancy and regenerative capacity in the early developing embryo for it not to miss the loss of a few cells.

Sex control is also possible, and maybe more practicable, by a technique involving centrifuging the semen. So the main interest of the embryo culture work lies in the possibility of using most or all of the eggs from the female from whom it is desired to breed.

Dr Kane described his Cornell work at a seminar...organised by the Animal Sciences Division of AFT, Dunsinea. He is himself working for the UCD Agriculture Faculty at Celbridge. There is parallel work going on within AFT so that creative interaction is possible; the Cornell transplant has a good prospect of survival.

The basic problem is that of finding a nutrient liquid of suitable composition to replace the natural fluid in which the egg floats. Early work made use of natural fluids; these however are difficult to get in quantity, and variable in quality. Attempts to use standard culture media were only partially successful; the egg would develop but not 'hatch' (there is an analogue of the hatching stage in mammalian eggs, in which the egg breaks out of its membrane and establishes a structure known as a 'blastocyst'). The Cornell work resulted in the identification of certain key nutrients (specific amino-acids needed by the embryo at this early stage) in the case of the rabbit.

The completion of the development to the extent of giving birth to an implanted offspring has been done in the case of the mouse. The rabbit is not yet at this stage. The extension of this technique to cattle-breeding is therefore not on the immediate agenda.

The nutritional needs of the developing embryo become more and more complex as it develops; the natural process of absorbtion of nutrients from the mother's bloodstream is likely to remain the best for all practical purposes.

It is good that there exists in Ireland a creative centre in touch with the world mainstream of this important work.

April 29 1970

The glasshouse Open Day at AFT Kinsealy....was an occasion to inspire a certain modest optimism.....

The experience of organising the research and dissemination of results related to this rapidly growing industry is the basis on which Dr Michael Woods, the Director, wrote his book 'Research in Ireland' reviewed in this column on March 18.

The main fruit of this research is the demonstration of the possibility of controlling all the key variables, giving precise reproducibility of the growth cycles of the various glasshouse crops of economic interest.

The main function of the Open Day is to help with the dissemination of the results, making them known to a public wider than the existing growers, including the rising generation.....

The economic frontiers of glasshouse cropping are being pushed forward continuously. Tomatoes and cucumbers are being joined by green peppers and aubergines.

Two technical developments are worth mentioning: the use of a special 'propagation-room' for seedlings, and the use of peat as a propagation-medium.

In the 'propagation-room', the environment is controlled with a degree of precision impossible in the ordinary glasshouse. Control extends to the CO2 level and light, as well as temperature and nutrients. Costings can be calculated to a fraction of a penny per plant.

(Carbon dioxide is the major plant nutrient. Its removal from the air on a global scale is an important function of the tropical forests, the decline of which is a matter for global concern. There is evidence of a significant rise in the atmospheric CO2 level since the start of the industrial revolution..... It is being seriously conjectured that this is beginning to have a climatic effect....... There is now more public awareness of these long-term dangers, thanks to the UN Conservation Year and the various specific anti-pollution campaigns.)

The second important technical development is the use of peat as a propagation medium. This has the advantage of being sterile, neutral, porous, with a crumb structure such as to give excellent availability of both air and moisture. The required nutrients can be added in precisely controlled quantities. Experimental results using peat have been very reproducible, unlike in ordinary soils, where the experimenter is at the mercy of uncontrolled amounts of trace-elements, some of which can be toxic.

The extension of the use of peat from the propagation to the cropping phase has not been quite so spectacular, though peat-straw mixes are in successful use. There are certain practical difficulties about controlling the water-supply....

It has often been observed that good laboratory systems fall down in the practical environment, despite the best efforts of the Advisory Service..... The difficulty here, I feel, is institutional; there should be mobility of personnel. It is not possible to convey the full picture from grower to researcher, and vice versa, in a classroom, even with visits and demonstrations.. There is no substitute for personal experience, in depth, involving actual work, extended over a period.

If a researcher develops a crop technique, he ought to be able to spend some time in the advisory service, disseminating it. He or she would then encounter in the field the practical problems that do not exist in the laboratory, and take these back as a stimulus to a further round of research. Similarly, an adviser, full-time on field work, can get out of touch with the latest developments, even conservative.. A period back in the research environment would be refreshing.....

The same institutional difficulty exists at the other end of the pipeline, inhibiting effective interaction with the universities... The classical planned multivariate experiment can often be sharpened up with insights derived from basic, university-type work on the physics, chemistry and biochemistry of the soil/plant/environment system; these elements can be integrated into a mathematical model, enabling the experiment to be planned with a 'rifle' rather than 'shotgun' strategy.

Mobility between the applied research institutes would do four things:

(a) bring good basic problems into university research;

(b) give the applied-research people the stimulus of having to interact with students;

(c) give the students a breath of the real world, for which the more conscious ones are increasingly agitating;

(d) lighten the lecture load on the existing university staff....


So let us have mobility of personnel, on the basis of six-month, one-year or two-year secondments, between the universities, applied institutes and advisory services....

The inner strength of world-class basic research is that it has always recognised the need for, and benefited from, this mobility. Let us learn from this, and generalise it.

June 10 1970

The Soils Division of AFT is situated at Johnstown Castle, near Wexford, in a Victorian Gothic environment, with landscaped gardens which are open to the public as an amenity. (The upkeep of this amenity was made a condition of transfer of the property to the State in the late 40s. The cost of this is considerable; as far as national accounting is concerned, it occurs in the science budget. Anomalies like this should be watched.)

In this Byronesque setting work 35 graduates and some 100 technicians and support staff. Of the 35 graduates, 24 have a primary degree in agriculture. Seven of the eleven researchers with specialist degrees other than agriculture are concentrated in the department called Soil Fertility and Chemistry, under JC Brogan.. This department is concerned mainly with evaluating fertilisers, and the principal technique is chemical analysis. This is an exception to the general rule, which is that most of the Departments are dominated by people with agricultural degrees.

It is apparent that most of the staff are of the same age-group, having been recruited at about the same time, mainly in the late 50s, when the Institute was expanding. From the manpower planning point of view, this is a dangerous situation.

From the point of view of the scientific standing of the Institute, the danger is twofold: not only is the age distribution unhealthy, but also the background is too uniform to allow the kind of creative development that follows from genuine interdisciplinary effort.

This is not to say that there is no good work going on; far from it. What I am saying is that the rate of production of good work will tend to decline from now on, unless means are found for attacking these adverse factors, and developing a better age-distribution and discipline-mix.

This cannot be done without mobility of personnel. This already exists, but at the price of sacrifice of pension-rights. Some have left research, spent time in the advisory services, started in business, become co-op managers or meat-factory managers. Means must be found for encouraging outward mobility as a policy, without personal sacrifice, so that places can be filled with younger graduates, with the wide range of disciplines necessary to make.....interdisciplinary team work the general rule rather than the occasional exception.

Professor Andrew Young, of NUU, has studied age-distributions in large organisations, and has shown how these can give rise to pathological conditions, resulting sometimes in organisational death. One such condition, which he calls the 'Braddock-Bardot syndrome' (the first name refers to the noted Liverpool lady MP; the names aptly describe the shapes of the age-distribution curves), consists in the accumulation of a thick belt of middle-aged middle-management, lacking promotion prospects, which relatively suddenly reacts to its frustrations by leaving 'en masse', giving rise to a 'generation gap' situation, in which the older top management have to deal with a flood of young recruits. There are no simple laws for stabilising the subsequent oscillations of the system; what does seem to be a legitimate conclusion is the need for a controlled leak of people out of the system, so as to prevent an accumulation in the middle age-group resulting from the initial recruitment of young graduates over a decade ago. I feel that Professor Young's work should be of interest to AFT in the period of re-thinking and restructuring in which they are now engaged.

Whle on personnel questions, there is an anomaly which is quite foreign to the scientific tradition......when leaving I accepted a copy of the Annual Report, so as to get the names on record....it was necessary to write in Marie Sherwood's name in pen, beside the others which were printed, because she happens to be a married woman, and consequently in the 'temporary' category. Otherwise the Report prints the names, and even the dates of movements, of every technician and typist in the place.

I will return at a later date to Marie Sherwood's work, with C L Masterson, on the nitrogen-fixation mechanism..... The right for a scientist to be listed in the directory of those whose work is relevant to a particular laboratory is an important one, more so, perhaps, than seniority, permancy, or pension rights.... This apparently is standard practice in the Irish administrative structure, including even in the universities.....

Other Departments are Grassland Nutrition and Ecology, under WE Murphy, Plant Nutrition and Biochemistry under G A Fleming and the National Soil Survey under Dr P Ryan. The head of the Soils Division is PF Ryan; this includes also a Soil Physics Department under W Burke, which includes two agricultural graduates, a physicist(2), a chemist and an engineer. This is situated at Kinsealy.....

The naming of these departments makes me slightly uneasy: the implied linking of specialist disciplines with specific sub-systems in my opinion in unsound, as it cuts across the philosophy of the 'systems approach'. The naming, however, is not so important as the reality, and in practice there is usually a sound appreciation of the total system by those working on the problems, despite the unhappy labelling which has occurred as a result of historical factors.....

June 16 1970

The various Departments of the Soils Division of AFT....despite their slightly confusing nomenclature, in which academic disciplines are linked with levels of organisation in the soil/plant system, do fit together into a reasonably integrated structure.

There are three distinct funcions being carried out within the Soils Division:

(1) research into fundamentals;

(2) evaluation of national soil potential;

(3) investigation of the potential of specific problem soils.


The third function involves the maintenance of out-stations. There are four of these: one at Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, under J Mulqueen, which is concerned with drumlin soils; two peatland stations (Glenamoy, Co Mayo, under PJ O'Hare, and Lullymore, Co Kildare, under A Cole) and a small sheep and mountain-land research unit at Maam in Co Galway.

The outstations.....deal with the total soil/plant/animal system under conditions where economic evaluations become meaningful..... The maintenance of an interactive and critical scientific atmosphere under outstation conditions presents problems.....I look forward to seeing how these are resolved in the AFT system.....I leave these aside for the present.

....The Plant Nutrition and Biochemistry Department....has tended to concentrate on trace-element work; this cross-links with the kind of geochemical surveying which is of interest to the mining companies.

Professor JS Webb, of the Royal School of Mines (as section of Imperial College, London), has developed geochemical survey methods which he implements using final-year geological students. To have extended this survey work to Ireland would have involved an expenditure of some 25,000 and would have provided an excellent framework for use both by the mining interests and also by agricultural researrchers in the trace-element field. This opportunity was allowed to pass by the failure of the two Government Departments concerned to agree on a procedure for collaborating. As a result of this neclect of the basic services, the Plant Nutrition and Biochemistry Department finds itself engaged in routine national survey work in this field, just as the Institute of Advanced Studies geophysical section is engaged in routine geophysical survey work, to the neglect of actual research based on the findings.

Much of the information on trace-elements....comes through contact with the Department of Agriculture Field Advisory Services; there is a considerable fund of lore here which would perhaps be more useful if it were integrated more closely with research....

Thus it seems that the 'biochemistry' component in the departmental title has been quietly dropped in practice, which makes sense....the fundamantals of the role of trace-elements in the plant metobolism is more properly a university research function. The Plant Nutrition Department is therefore acting as a 'trace-element effect detector' on a national basis, without probing too deeply into the internal structure of the soil-plant system, but able to watch closely the inputs and outputs.

Returning to the National Soil Survey, this is engaged in classifying the various soils on an area basis. The principal factors are the underlying geology, topography (slope, top, bottom) and climate. The outputs are potential crop yields and fertiliser needs under optimal conditions of cultivation. A map showing the maximum livestock density, as a consequence of the evaluation of the soil, is an interesting exhibit: a historian would recognise the Plantation areas.

A persistent result is the 50% under-utilisation of the land, practically everywhere.. This shows that the limiting factor in Irish agriculture is certainly not the fertility of the soil(3).....

The Soil Fertility and Chemistry Department......concentrates on the mainstream chemical fertilisers; they have to test and establish approved procedures fro new products. Urea, for example, must be incorporated in the soil; it won't do as a top-dressing as it volatilises and is carried away on the breeze as a pollutant...

The public tends to blame the industrialists for pollution, but the run-off of soluble nitrogen into streams is not negligible and is being watched.

A new problem is sulphur deficiency; work by PK Hanley and SL Tierney (the latter being from the Meteorological Office) has shown that we are dependent on sulphur washed down by the rain, now that sulphur is no longer provided by the bulk fertilisers. It is, however, needed, and in some midland areas the amount precipitated is not enough. This has, in effect, become a new trace-element problem.

The Soil Biology Department, under CL Masterson, has been working closely with the Grassland Nutrition and Ecology Department under W Murphy in establishing both a fundamental understanding of the nitrogen fixation process, and a workable system for the management of a grass-clover sward.

As regards the fundamentals, much is now understood about the physics, chemistry and biology of the rhizobium-clover symbiosis. The rhizobium (the active nitrogen-fixing organism) lives on the inner surfaces of small pores into which the nodules on the clover roots subdivide. The active volume is protected by relatively thick but porous skin, so that large nodules are more effective than small, for a given total nodule weight. The nitrogen from the air diffuses in, and is worked on by an enzyme which knows how to break the N2 triple bond. The activity of this enzyme can be measured by allowing it to work on acetylene to give ethylene, which can then be estimated using a gas chromatograph. This is a relatively new technique, which may prove useful in evaluating rhizobium varieties.

The rhizobium gets its oxygen via haemoglobin which is provided by the clover plant; this is the only known occurrence of haemoglobin in the vegetable world(4). The limiting factor in nitrogen fixation is photosynthesis; the nitrogen-fixing factory in the nodules at the root can handle as much keto-acid material as it can get from the leaf system, converting it to the corresponding amino-acids.

A good grass-clover sward is worth possible 8 pounds per acre in fertiliser costs saved. It lasts indefinitely, if well-managed. The problem is that clover growth is highly temperature-sensitive, and the nitrogen factory at the root does not get going until the spring is well advanced.

There are four possible ways forward:

(1) breed an early clover, if possible; this problem is now with AFT Oakpark, having been posed by Masterson's work;

(2) develop a system of early controlled use of fertilisers, to promote early grass, but not to the extent that the clover is damaged; this is rather a delicate balance, but it can be done;

(3) depend for early grass on a fertiliser-fed field elsewhere;

(4) put down more winter-feed and forego the early grass.


The working out of a suitable mix of these and other possible alternatives is in the field of micro-economic or operations-research model-building, the inputs being the technical factors like growth/temperature curves, costs and prices, and the outputs being material needs and system profitability. The development of an early clover can thus be evaluated economically, by comparison with fertiliser-based systems.

July 1 1970

The Plant Sciences and Crop Husbandry Division of AFT is the next one up the ecological ladder from the Soils Division; it is located at Oakpark, near Carlow. Its scope includes plant breeding, crop husbandry, plant pathology and plant chemistry. It also includes engineering, as an important back-up service for crop husbandry. The Division Head is Bernard Crombie.

..Its responsibility is to develop new varieties of all the commercial crops specifically suited to the various regional conditions, as revealed by the work of the Soils Division, and to make them available for general distribution through the Department of Agriculture. Thus, for example, Vincent Connolly, in his work on grasses, interacts with the pasture system evaluation work at Johnstown Castle. The plant-breeding department is headed by Dr Ribeiro, whose main area of interest has been potato breeding. Irish seed potatoes have a high international reputation for freedom from disease.

There is also developing an interest in crops from which extracts can be made which are of use in the pharmaceutical industry; this question is being examined jointly with the IIRS (more about this later)(5).

...It is necessary to ask whether there is conflict of interest between the research status of the individual (as measured by published papers) and the commercial success ofthe project. If we are open about commercially-orientated work, we provide 'open season for the head-hunters' and run the risk that our research results will be developed abroad, and we will have to buy back our own research results in the form of developed technology. The British have suffered in this way at the hands of the US.

It would be more prudent to concentrate the maximum effort to get a project developed to the commercial stage rapidly, relocating and seconding staff as necessary to establish a viable team in the one place, get the product on the market, and then and only then talk about the achievement. There are signs that people are becoming aware of this, and revising their motivations accordingly.

The question also arises, in the mixed economy, of ownership, royalties, etc on processes developed by national effort. It will not be easy to solve this problem, as there are real conflicts of interest involved.

Also in the Crop Husbandry Division is a group which knows about pesticides and chemical weed control techniques, under Dr Eades. This is supplemented by the work of PC Cunningham in the Plant Pathology Department on crop rotation as a means of disease control; this has impact on weed and pest control also. There is a hint of a departmental boundary between the chemical and ecological approaches to weed, pest and disease control. It will be necessary to come back to this area, which is one of the main battlegrounds between the giant chemical monopolies and those concerned with long-term environmental degradation(6).

The Engineering Department under Brendan Cunney has been evaluating various implements and establishing performance criteria. The type of problem thrown up are often many-sided and tricky: currently Bernard Rice is trying to evaluate how best to thin sugar beet, choosing between a wide variety of systems involving manual, mechanical and chemical elements. Current thinking on problems such as this is tending towards an 'operations research' approach, with evaluations based on the performance of the total system and expressed in profitability. It is not enough to know that a machine will deal with x acres per hour. One must know if this operation, when combined with other costed operations, in the given environment of given variability, and the produce (allowing for yield variability) brought to a (variable) market, forms part of a total system which is profitable for enough of the time to enable a producer to survive. A veritable Monte Carlo situation; it is no accident that computer techniques evolved for dealing with situations like this have been so nick-named.

Returning to the AFT Crop Husbandry Division: one of the more interesting developments is the re-introduction of flax to Ireland, for which Dr Michael Neenan must take a substantial share of the credit. Last year 250 acres were grown by members of the Bunclody Co-op; this year the acreage is up to 800.

The flax is pulled mechanically; it is too tough to cut. It is then left to the action of the soil-bacteria and the damp; this 'dew-retting' process has superceded the old 'pond-retting' system. The old process gave a better result, but the labour was heavy and unpleasant, and it is now held that dew-retting is nearly as good, and much less costly(7). The flax, after 'scutching' at Bunclody, is shipped to Kirkpatrick's mill at Ballyclare, Co Antrim, for spinning and weaving into a linen-synthetic mix, for which the Irish-grown flax is suitable. The linen industry regards this as a break-through; heretofore if has been limited by its inability to take advantage of the possibilities for blending presented by the existence of synthetics......

One of the difficulties has been the establishments of standards for the flax, so that the surplus can be sold on the world market. The only reputable test is known as the 'Lambeg tensile test', developed by the linen research people at Lambeg, Co Antrim. This involves spinning under standard conditions and then breaking the spun thread. This is outside the experience of the IIRS Textile Division, which has not as yet developed an interest in linen. There is however collaboration in this matter between Oakpark and the Kilkenny Design Centre, which also has an interest in textile work.

It is to this type of regional technology support network that we must look if the imbalance between Dublin and the rest of the country is to be corrected. A network which includes Ballyclare, Bunclody, Carlow, Kilkenny and Lambeg, without connecting significantly with Dublin or Belfast, deserves to be noted with interest in this connection.....

August 19 1970

The full impact of the AFT reorganisation will take some time to evaluate......it is to be welcomed in that it represents a departure from the old....academic type of structure (with, for example, soil, plants and animals studied in different centres in different parts of the country) and a move towards studying agricultural systems as an integrated whole on a regional basis.

For example, the Glenamoy(8) out-station, which specialises in trying to make blanket bog fertile, is now associated with the Creagh centre at Ballinrobe, which is concerned with agricultural systems suitable to Western conditions; also associated are four other outstations in Galway and Leitrim. This organisation makes sense to me; there is no need for Creagh to be a sort of limbo for forgotten souls.....

If AFT is to be an effective body for implementation as well as research and development, the output should consist of various workable systems adopted by producers under specific local conditions, rather than a series of papers in the scientific journals. The latter is an important, but secondary, function.

Under conditions where the effective implementation of results is blocked by social or cultural obstacles, the paper output assumes greater subjective importance to the researcher, who often has an eye to a conference abroad, or a year's leave of absence.

...An important, and possibly missing (or weak), link in the implementation chain for the Creagh complex is a development or innovation group attached to a Western co-operative, or federation of co-operatives. Such a group would form a useful bridge between the research centre and the farmer, supplementing the work of the advisory services....

November 8 1972

I welcome the injection of 50,000 of milk levy money into AFT Moorepark(9). This will have the effect of strengthening the link between the researchers and the dairy industry, and making the Moorepark work less dependent on the vagaries of centralised resource allocation.

I am not against centralised resource allocation, but it is important that it be reserved for areas of high risk where support from the industry is unlikely to be forthcoming.

Central funds, if wisely administered, might creditably be used to encourage repeats of the Moorepark-type deal, by offering a supplement of 50 or 100%.

The Moorepark research areas in which the industry is prepared to invest include milk proteins, butter manufacturing techniques, bulk milk collection.

There are many angles on milk protein. A farmer can control the protein by correct feeding, unlike the fat which is related to breed and to the phase of the lactation cycle. The industry is moving in the direction of payment for protein. The technical possibility exists now of upgrading whey proteins, so that whey instead of being a river pollutant is becoming a valuable raw material.

The protein level in milk also limits the cheese and cream production seasons. These and other factors related to increased industrialisation of milk processing are adding up to an argument for organising to maintain the winter milk supply, thus extending the cheese season, and keeping the protein composition of milk more uniform.

Butter manufacture you might think had little scope for development. You would be wrong; the Moorepark people are producing fractionated butter, one component of which will spread easily at refrigerator temperature, while the other remains solid in the tropics. In other words, butter can be adapted to suit the market.

Department of Agriculture regulations at present do not allow this type of processing; butter has a 'sacred cow' status and must not be tampered with. No doubt the Department, at the time of invention of churning, were equally dubious about tampering with the milk, and the first butter had to be sold illegally!(10)

The need for some development work on bulk milk collection is made clear in the August issue of the Irish Journal of Agricultural Research, by J O'Shea, J Palmer and J Connolly.....who found that none of five milk metering devices came up to their manufacturers specification; all were difficult to clean and would give rise to problems if used under farm conditions.

The existing procedure whereby a metering device mounted on the bulk tanker, under the control of a skilled operator, is not in question. The problem arises if you want to meter at the level of the individual cow at milking-time.

This particular issue of IJAR has a description of a pocket slide-rule for computing weight-gains under various winter-feeding regimes, given the analysis of the silage. This ought to be of use to the beef-producer and the silage-contractor, if they are enterprising enough to want to know the results of the research which is going on at public expense on their behalf. I would prefer to see this work supported by a levy on the beef producers, on the Moorepark pattern. The producers would then become more interested...

There is also a report....on the manufacture of undenatured whey protein concentrates, from Moorepark; this is part of the work carried out under Bord Bainne sponsorship. Such work will in future become less publishable until the benefits have been realised...

November 15 1972

The 1971 Research Reports of AFT have just come out. The form is one of the results of the new structure: Dunsinea, Moorepark and Creagh are grouped in one volume, whereas previously they used to be separated.

One gets an impression of the broad scope of the work; 150 or more distinct experiments in the course of a year, ranging over animal breeding, animal management, slurry utilisation, silage digestion, trace element deficiencies, meat biochemistry. There is a long-shot experiment on bamboo as a marginal-land crop; if this pays off, it could constitute a rapidly-maturing raw material for paper-making(11). The techno-economic implications of this agricultural-industrial system is perhaps worth a theoretical look, even at this early stage.

These research reports are very condensed, abstracted summaries of experiments, each of which is on record somewhere as a fully-fledged scientific paper. These would benefit from indexing...

Suppose I want to go into business as a farmer(12), and want to know all there is to be known about silage and animal management under Irish conditions. Or suppose I, as a consultant, have been asked to evaluate a number of alternative agricultural systems (this has happened). As things are now, one has to go and talk to various experts. This is an agreeable and necessary step. It would, however, be more productive if the material available in the successive annual reports were to be distilled into monograph form for certain key areas, and one had read the monographs.... In other words, is not the time ripe for some distillation and publication in permanent form of the researches of the past 10-15 years, as an aid to the dissemination of the technology?

Perhaps then the authors of the monographs (I can think of a few likely candidates) would be able to pull out of AFT, set up as consultants, live on royalties, get university posts, start businesses etc, thereby clearing the way for young recruits into the system? At present there is a promotion log-jam, due to the large initial recruitment of young graduates in the late 50s. There is to all intents and purposes a block on recruitment, due to the age-distribution and fixed-establishment policy.

Michael Woods (sometime head of Glasshouse Crops at Kinsealy) attemped to do this....I reviewed his book favourably; now I realise that I ought to have been more critical. Instead of distilling the Kinsealy experience into a monograph on how to grow tomatoes, he syphoned it off sideways into a generalised book on how to do applied scientific research.

There is immense scope in AFT experience for the writing of books which could become standard works of reference. There is no shortage of entrepreneurial skill among the more senior staff members, many of whom are involved part-time in successful businesses. Rather than condemning this as 'indulging in rackets' I feel it should be encouraged as a means of enabling the research system to renew itself with young people, and of enriching the business community with people having a scientific training. Such people in business would be more liable to understand the importance of employing people with technical ability (such as are now beginning to flow from the Regional Colleges) than the traditional businessman. Indeed, it would be to the advantage of AFT and the State that such entrepreneurial skills as emerged were backed up with capital.

November 28 1973

I listened to Dr TW Edminster, who heads the Agricultural Research Service in the US, address a seminar at AFT on November 19.

It is interesting to compare the different ways in which research institutes come under attack. In the US the Agricultural Research people had to beat off the National Academy of Science people, who set up the 'Pound Committee' to investigate whether agricultural science was keeping up with the space research people. (Indeed! Why should if?)

Dr Edminster outlined how the scene was being transformed by the changing market and by transport and storage technologies; also by interaction with the medical research system.

He made the now-fashionable case for interdisciplinary team work, and brought out the real distinction between 'inter-' and 'multi-' disciplinary: in the latter you have people working on different aspects in different boxes, without interacting. He called for 'research on research': how do you build a team? how do you recognise the bridge-scientist?

Professor O h-Eocha asked how much funding came from sources other than government, and how much they paid out for sub-contract work. The amounts were 2% amd 1% respectively; the ARS is basically a State-financed research unit, which hands out its findings free for agri-business and the food industry to use. In other words, it is still being treated as if it were a social service to small farmers.

If this philosophy were to be copied in Ireland, Irish taxpayers would be subsidising the profits of the multinational food monopolies. The trend is away from this, and rightly so.

December 5 1973

The 1972 AFT Research Report from the Soils Division has just come out.

This is in the traditional format: abstracts classified by the department in which the work was done. As a means of publication it leaves much to be desired; there is a table of contents, but no index. It does not stand up well to comparison with the IIRS series 'Ireland: Products and Services'.....

I am surprised that the Agricultural Advisory Service, which must be the prime user of AFT material, has not yet registered a protest against the low standard of the indexing. Perhaps there is some procedure that I have missed whereby someone who wants to know all there is to be known about (say) silage can find his way to the appropriate reports.... Presumably one finds the person who knows, and asks.

I feel I must reiterate.....that the time is ripe for the more senior of the AFT researchers to distil the accumulated experience of over 15 years of dedicated research into monographs....

If you want to quantify the effect of SO2 on vegetation, as is relevant to the case of the Cork smelter project, which is close to prime farmland, you go to PK Hanley at Johnstown Castle, Wexford; here also Brian Coulter and others have been applying computer methods to the automatic control of analysis of soil samples.

The geochemical survey work is continuing. This, it will be remembered, gave the initial clue to the presence of the Navan ore-body. PV Kiely is now engaged in establishing background metal levels in that area, with an eye to monitoring contamination during future operations.

Nitrogen from natural sources (pig manure, clover) comes in for due attention. This will increase in importance, as artificial nitrogen is a glutton for energy, and the oil crisis is upon us. The Masterson-Sherwood team, which has been ploughing away with dedication at the fundamentals of nitrogen fixation by rhyzobium in clover, is producing a steady flow of basic work on which in future years we will all be depending for our protein.

There is increasing concern with farm effluents, due no doubt to pressure from the trout angling and other environmental interests.

February 13 1974

The role of soil testing in determining how much fertiliser of what kind it is economic to apply is by now well established in agriculture. Because of the demand for technicians in other areas, and the possibly demoralising effect of routine analytical operations day after day on trained staff, there is a strong case for developing automatic analytical equipment.

One of the first instruments in this field was the Technicon; this was in use in the early 60s on routine jobs like estimating sugar in urine. There was a continuous amino-acid analyser developed in Guinness's (at Park Royal) at about the same time. Technicon have kept themselves in a world-leading position in this field; they have a production unit at Finglas, near Dublin.

Brian Coulter at Johnstown Castle has developed a soil auto-analyser based on the traditional soil analysis operations. A system has been put together using appropriate bits of instrumentation from various manufacturers; in an automated rig probes move under the control of electromechanical timers into samples carried on a conveyor. The usual estimates of pH, N, P, K and Mg are done at a rate of 3 per minute, enabling 7000 analyses to be done per week. The current annual rate is about 100,000. Thus when the machine is working continuously, the production of soil analyses can be increased by a factor of about four.

Up to now, soil analysis has been a free service, and the bottleneck has been the rate at which the local agricultural inspector could draw samples.

With this level of productivity, and with increasing numbers of farmers wanting rapid service, the likelihood is that a 'do-it-yourself' sampling system will be initiated, supported by a quick-turnround service financed by a fee. This would by-pass the instructor, and place on the farmer the onus of obeying the sampling rules.

Thus AFT has again made a bid for world-leadership in a high-technology specialist field. Whether they achieve it or not will depend not only on how well the system performs, but also on how they approach the problem of marketing the system to other national soil analysis services.

There will no doubt be opportunities for Irish firms to take up the manufacture of the system under licence........

The system is linked to a mini-computer which processes the results automatically, checking them against a set of standards, and drawing attention to 'rogue' readings.

The inaugural occasion on January 31 was used by the Johnstown Castle people to do a general demonstration of the scope of their work. Willy Murphy outlined a new system for hill land (a cow and a calf per 0.9 acre from April to October, on a single suckling system); the Masterson work on nitrogen fixation by clover has now developed relatively high-precision measures of the actual amount of fertiliser equivalent: 70:90 lbs/acre in a poor year, 150/250 lbs in a good year. It is crucially dependent on soil temperature.

Garret Fleming has been working away on trace elements; it is emerging that if you work towards a three-cut silage system with high production levels, there are cases where sulphur is limiting. Remember when the fertiliser people got rid of the old sulphate of ammonia because they thought that the SO4 radical was a passenger? Well, it may come back in high-yield systems.

Hubert Tinney has been looking at animal slurries. The annual value of these is said to be 24M pounds in terms of fertiliser equivalent. Only a half of this is recycled; the rest, presumably, is poisoning the fish. The trend is into large processing units, which lend themselves to methane production. There is a pilot-project in gestation to do this.

March 25 1975

I have until now delayed taking stock of the International Dairy Symposium on Lipolysis in Milk which took place in Cork on March 5-7. I needed a chance to look at some of the papers and get some feeling for the feedback on the rather frightening headlines which subsequently appeared in the news columns.....

The March 6 headline was 'Dairy Products in Ireland have Highest Risk of Becoming Rancid'; the text however went on to quote statistics on inacceptable rancidity levels for six countries which ranged from 5-10% to 70-80%, the highest not being Ireland. This is an example of an exaggerating headline; however it is not far wrong, as Ireland and New Zealand are in the upper rancidity group. Both countries have a highly seasonal production pattern.

At the symposium the co-op managers were at pains to stress that there was no health hazard, merely a flavour problem. However, in a 200M export food industry, a flavour problem can end up as an (economic) health hazard for those employed in it.

On March 8 the headline was 'Dairymen at Loggerheads on Milking System'; there was a report of a heated discussion in the symposium on the relative merits of the 'high-line' and 'low-line' systems in the milking parlour. High-line systems, according to the concensus, give rise to greater lipolysis and greater rancidity. However, Irish dairymen, under the leadership of AFT Moorepark, are heavily committed to the high-line system. So committed is Moorepark, apparently, that no-one from that centre was able to give a reliable estimate of the cost-differential between the two types of equipment.

To round off the statement of the problem, I refer to an article by Michael Browner on March 13 reporting a serious decline in production of liquid milk for direct human consumption; a National Prices Commission study predicts rationing in Dublin and Cork in the winter months. This predicted shortage is a consequence of the existence of two different production systems, one allowed to follow the growth of the grass (which reduces practically to zero in winter), and another, supported by a price differential, constrained to give a steady supply the year round. The price differential is no longer sufficient to keep farmers supplying the second system, and it is slowly collapsing.

In order to understand the significance of the Cork syymposium in the tangled web of technological and economic elements which make up the dairy industry, it is useful to list the generally accepted facts of the situation as they emerged from the discussions among the international experts.

1. Lipolysis is the breakdown by enzymes of milk fat, giving 'free fatty acids' (FFA) which cause rancid flavours.

2. The fat in normal milk occurs in globules, each globule being surrounded by a membrane which protects the fat from the lipolytic enzymes. They can only get at the fat if the membrane is broken; this can be seen in electron microscope pictures.

3. Excessive agitation of the milk breaks up the globules and induces lipolysis.

4. End-lactation milk is more fragile, lacking certain key proteins which stabilise the membranes; it is also subject to relatively more agitation by reason of its small volume in a system designed for the June peak load.

5. Lipolytic enzymes are produced by psychrotrophic bacteria and are heat-stable. In other words, if you refrigerate and store on the farm your dribble of winter milk for a twice-weekly collection, the pseudomonas organism goes on multiplying merrily despite the low temperature, and the lipolytic enzymes it produces will survive the pasteuriser.

Despite the reluctance of the various national marketing organisations to admit the existence of a problem, lipolysis is a matter for increasing concern in the International Dairy Federation. Whence the Cork symposium, which brought together experts from Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain. Sweden and the UK.The fact that it took place in Ireland, and that the opening address was presented by Dr WK Downey of the National Science Council, reflects the relatively high standing of Ireland in the field of milk biochemistry.

It is no use knowing the biochemistry of milk if this knowledge cannot be put to use in the design of equipment to handle it. At this point the Irish dairy industry begins to show signs of strain. In the papers devoted to technological factors at the Cork symposium, the following facts emerged:

(a) Milk with high FFA content gives high fat loss in separation. Thus the industry does not actually realise as butter the fat it pays for...

(b) Rancidity is inversely related to milk output level, and directly to the use of high-level pipelines....

(c) Independent evidence against the use of high pipelines came also from Germany and the Netherlands.

Thus the indications are overwhelmingly against high pipelines if the rancidity problem is to be beaten.

Now we come around to the economic roots of the Moorepark preference for the high-line system. A low-line system involves investment of more capital per cow. For a low-line system (with gentle handling and minimal pumping) to be achieved without problems (tangling of flexible tubes, fouling by slurry etc) considerable effort in design and construction has to be put into the byre. The current Irish high-line system can be put in with minimal reconstructive effort; it is therefore favoured by Moorepark as a low-cost solution to handling the highly seasonal Irish milk supply. If the contemporary Irish supply-profile is to be taken as sacrosanct, then every penny of capital invested to handle the peak load must be grudged. In this sense, Moorepark is right.

On the other hand, if undue capital-thrift is to lead us to a situation in which Irish dairy-produce declines in quality relative to its competitors...then the underlying assumptions have to be questioned. What use is cheap summer grass if the dairy produce into which it is converted becomes unmarketable, due to uneven quality? Perhaps we should conserve more grass, increase the winter feed rations, and smooth the supply of milk throughout the year from a 15 to 1 ratio to (say) 2 or 3 to 1.

Such a practice would constitute a compromise between the European and UK pattern (1.2 to 1) and the New Zealand/Ireland pattern based on the 'cheap summer grass' practice.....

This would solve the lipolysis/rancidity problem, enable the cheese season to be extended, permit expansion of volume without adding peak capacity for 10-15 years, and enable the liquid-milk producers to blend themselves off happily into the general industrial milk system, secure in the knowledge that the latter would be able to supply the total domestic needs, winter and summer.

All this could be done if the industry were to offer special contracts to about a third of all milk producers, to specialise their herds in the direction of October calving, paying them a premium rate estimated at 6-8p per gallon. Preliminary calculations suggest that the industry could well afford this, from (a) capital savings (b) storage cost reduction (c) reduced marketing costs and easier market penetration for higher-quality products (d) access to a wider range of up-market products for which continuity of supplu is essential (e) reduced interest on overdraft due to smoothed cash-flow profile.

All the above factors are quantifiable, and indeed have been quantified, but are apparently not known to any centre of power capable of acting in the interests of primary producers, processors and consumers. It takes an international symposium in Cork to flush this into the open. Next time it will come up will be when the urban milk supply dries up in January, or else perhaps when the EEC imposes quality standards on butter with FFA levels which we are unable to meet. Then the cat will really be among the pigeons(13).

August 19 1975

The June-July issue of the Irish Quality Control Association newsletter illustrates a problem that the food industry must tackle in educating the public and the politicians....

Apparently the Golden Vale Co-op went over from the old methylene blue test for milk quality, to a more modern test involving the plate-coounting of bacteria, whereupon the farmers organised a protest, claiming that 95% of them would fail and they would lose money.

The farmers own the co-op who employ the quality control staff.

The discrepancy between the old and new tests is real, in the sense that once you go over to refrigerated milk the bacteria which grow are ones which prefer low temperatures; it happens that these are not detected by the methylene blue test.

But have the farmers any right to sell dirty milk which spuriously passes an inappropriate test? You would imagine that they would be slow to seek such a dubious privilege, if they know the full story. Yet they do so because they are 'politically' in the right, as the methylene blue test is still officially accepted by the Department of Agriculture.

Enlightened, far-seeing and technically competent creamery managers are introducing plate-counting as fast as they can. Special automatic devices have been developed jointly between Moorepark and Waterford Co-op.. This advanced food quality control technology is as good as anything in Europe, if not better. Yet the quality regulations are being kept decades out of date by people who at the same time purport to defend Irish interests on the various EEC committees concerned with food regulation. As a result of this ignorance and irresponsibility it is possible for farmers to be confused to the extent of stabbing a progressive quality-minded creamery management in the back, with apparent State sanction.

January 20 1976

It is a growing worry among animal and plant breeders throughout the world that the very success of the dominant economic breeds wil push into irrevocable decline the broad genetic base from which they were derived. The fear is that a mutant disease-organism could wipe out a whole economic sector based on a single super-breed, before a resistant strain could be developed by the usual hybridisation and selection procedure.

The initiative of Jim Whiteside, a forester in Co Tyrone, is therefore to be commended. He has assembled a collection of rare old poultry breeds at the Department of Agriculture game farm at Seskmore. The impetus came from the US bicentenary events, which have revived interest in the Ulster-American historic connections. The core of the poultry-collection is defined by the stocks as kept by the 18th-century American settlers.

Hitherto this type of operation has been the preserve of private enthusiasts. Its importance is increasingly being recognised by the scientific breeding establishment, with encouragement from UNFAO.

February 10 1976

Following my reference to Jim Whiteside's work.....I have had some letters, more than usual on a single topic.

Among them is one from David G Cowper...who is the representative and livestock inspector in Ireland for the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

Apparently the Ulster White Pig is now extinct, but only as recently as 1965. Typing and verification is being done with Irish Moyled cattle and the (putative) Cladore sheep. There are only 250 Kerry cows left, and the future is in doubt regarding the largest herd, representing 20% of the total. Other breeds mentioned include the Mayo Red.

Regarding the Kerry cow, the tradition is that in the 19th century they used to be driven by drovers to the midlands, as far north as Longford, in the late summer, in calf. They would be bought by farmers in ones and twos to ensure a supply of winter milk for the family.

This piece of lore may again become important if farmers begin specialising in autumn-calving herds in response to the winter milk bonus offered by Waterford Co-op, and now under consideration generally in the industry, as an alternative to investing in more plant to handle the June peak.

Winter milk producers would perhaps benefit from using genetic material derived from a breed adapted to rough mountain pastures, as is the Kerry.

December 21 1976

Page 22 Continuing the current series of specialist monographs reviewing the state of the art in agriculture, AFT has brought out two more which will be of interest to livestock people: 'Diseases of Grasses and Forage Legumes in Ireland', by CJ O'Rourke.....and 'Fodder Maize', by Dr Michael Neenan; both books are from Oakpark.

The importance of the first book is measured by the annual value of meat and milk products depending on grass, now some 600M pounds, of which 60% is exported.

Con O'Rourke has assembled data on 57 diseases carried by fungal pathogens on grasses, clovers and other forage legumes, giving identification procedures, effects and methods of control. There are colour plates, an essential identification aid.

Dr Neenan concludes that maize is a good fodder crop in 12 out of 15 years, and that dry-matter production is no better than that of well-managed grass. Cold-tolerant varieties, however, are coming in, and maize is beginning to spread in north-west Europe. Between-season fluctuations are greater than between varieties....

At present the primary role of maize in relation to Irish agriculture is as a feedstock for such young animals as are available for export, given the size of the national herd, the yield of the national pasture and the proportion of the herd devoted to milk production. These three parameters primarily determine the volume of trade in young beef animals for fattening where high-yield fodder is available. There are indications that the maize areas of the Continent are beginning to take over this role from the traditional British finishing areas, and a store-cattle trade of a new type is establishing itself.

The key to the achievement of maximum value-added within Ireland is grassland productivity and local production of fodder crops, of which maize may be one if it can be bred to tolerate the occasional cold spring.

Con O'Rourke's book is a valuable contribution to grassland productivity, but unfortunately the present low average of this key factor is more socio-economic than technical in its origins. There is the beginnings of a lobby for a 'land tax', a generous retirement scheme and a leasing system, which factors when combined would have the effect of making land available to younger farmers for more productive use. It has been observed that the most productive farmers are those with young families.

NOTES

1. See Chapter 4.5 (Food) on this date.

2. See Chapter 5.3 (Physics in Industry, 22/7/70) for an account of his subsequent fate.

3. It is widely held that the limiting factor is access to land by energetic young people with knowledge of, and interest in, farming. See the last paragraph of this chapter.

4. This bizarre anomaly is one of the arguments used by Fred Hoyle to support the hypothesis that genetic building-blocks trickle in from outer space (a modern version of the old Arrhenius 'panspermia' concept). It is stated to be difficult to conceive of an independent evolutionary path for so complex a molecule in this context.

5. This production project, which involves cultivation and harvesting of ergot from a deliberately-infected rye-crop, is outlined in Chapter 3.5 (Bio-engineering).

6. The conflict of interest between the agrichemical firms and the long-term conservation of the environment was the subject of the seminal book 'Silent Spring' by Rachel Carson. This triggered the movement of environmental concern which developed in the 70s.

7. Regettably this enterprise did not prosper. The prime mover at Bunclody was the co-op manager, Rory Murphy, who fell ill at a critical time, and the farmers lost confidence. There were also problems due to variations in the quality of the 'dew-retting' process. Currently (1983) interest centres on a process whereby the crop is sprayed with a cultured special-purpose organism, under controlled conditions, after collection and transportation to the scutching-mill. The revival of this crop remains of long-term interest, thanks to the dependence on petroleum of most competing synthetics.

8. Glenamoy has succeeded in converting bog to pasture, but under conditions such that it has become a recognised world centre for the study of the life-cycle of the liver-fluke!

9. Moorepark got left out from the first round of exploratory visits in 1970. It is the main centre for dairing research, situated near Fermoy in Co Cork. See also Chapter 4.5 (Food).

10. The Departmental butter regulations relate to an earlier epoch, when the main problem was adulteration by retailers for an unsophisticated captive urban market. They were a good thing in their time, but need to be updated.

11. Tropical grasses such as bamboo are current favourites as prospective 'energy crops' in some situations (eg Puerto Rica). The currently preferred Irish system for carbon-fixation is short-rotation forestry, using species such as willow which give heavy early yields under a coppicing regime. Harvesting machinery has been developed by the Sugar Co, plantations laid out on cutaway bog by Bord na Mona, and the small electricity-generating stations in the West are running increasingly on wood-chips.

12. The only practicable way to do this, under the present land-tenure system, is to marry a farmer's daughter. See, again, the final paragraph of this chapter.

13. I was indebted to Dr WK Downey, then of the NSC, now Chief Executive of ACOT (the agricultural advisory service) for a contemporary briefing on the significance of the Cork symposium. I had also my own insights into the problem, having done some techno-economic anlaysis for Bord Bainne in 1971. (Incidentally, the relative scarcity of comment subsequent to 1970 is related to the fact that the writer was engaged in techno-economic consultancy work in the agricultural sector during this period; as a consequence he felt inhibited from writing.) The results had little impact at the time, due to the preoccupation with the general effects of the EEC price bonanza. The arguments, however, were valid, and have strengthened over the years, with the increasing capital-intensity of the industry.


[To Irish Times Column Index] [Techne Associates]

Some navigational notes:

A highlighted number brings up a footnote or a reference. A highlighted word hotlinks to another document (chapter, appendix, table of contents, whatever). In general, if you click on the 'Back' button it will bring to to the point of departure in the document from which you came.

Copyright Dr Roy Johnston 1999