Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Monday 24 July 2017

Opinion: Why are our beef prices caught in a time-warp?

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Photo: O'Gorman Photography
Photo: O'Gorman Photography

John Heney

With Christmas and the New Year receding from our minds, it’s a good time to have a look at what 2017 may have in store for our farms and for Irish cattle farming in general.

My own cattle are looking very well and while the good weather this back-end may account for this, it could also be down to the fact that I appear to have bought a better type store animal this year.

However, I can remember thinking the same about my store cattle a few years ago when it made very little difference to their eventual factory grades.

If there’s one thing which really annoys beef farmers, it’s the total unpredictability of the beef grading system.

As I mentioned last month, Australians felt the same and have now changed over to an x-ray type grading system which makes a lot more sense than just using surface pictures.

It would be nice to hear what our own Department thinks, or are they at all interested in remedying the current grading malaise?   

Being able to delay housing because of the good weather was a great bonus. Hopefully it won’t delay spring growth too much; it has certainly helped my supply of silage.

The group of seven plain cattle that I bought last October have also done well, but they are still way behind the rest of the stock.


Only time will tell if the €150 per head spared on their purchase price proves to have been a false economy or not.

Of course the top of my own wish list for 2017 would be to get a good growing season and repeat the weight gain achieved in 2016. Good grass management is obviously critically important, but I’m afraid that unless nature provides us with the correct conditions for growing grass, a repeat of the 2016 record weight gains will be very difficult to achieve.

Even though we are poles apart on the use of GM technology in food production, I must congratulate my fellow Farming Independent columnist  PJ Phelan for highlighting the hypocrisy surrounding the GM issue in Ireland.

While we congratulate ourselves for our green production systems,  PJ quite correctly points out that: “They (the consumers) need to be aware that most (Irish) meat is produced from animals that have consumed GM feedstuffs”.

This highlights for me one of the greatest scandals in modern Irish farming; farmers were neither consulted or indeed informed that GM ingredients were being included in the feedstuffs we were purchasing for our stock.

Our farming organisations may not agree, but I feel Irish farmers are long overdue an explanation from both the millers and our Government as to why such a critically important decision was taken, and why farmers as the principal stakeholders were never consulted.

Our politicians and leaders of industry would do well to realise that our unique ‘green’  image, which is a priceless competitive advantage, must be jealously protected.

I believe that it would be extremely naive of us to think that there are not competing international interests ready and waiting to use the ‘GM’ issue to damage our marketing advantage.

Unfortunately, the reality of beef farming in Ireland is that if our EU income supports were withdrawn in the morning we would need something like a doubling of the price we receive for our cattle to enable beef farming to survive.

The average price I got for my cattle in 2016 was just 12c/kg more than the price I got for Friesian cattle in 1989. However, when we allow for inflation (78pc) I should now be getting about €6 per kilo for my Friesian cattle in order to equal the price I got over 27 years ago.

I realise that there are many people involved in politics and our advisory services working very hard on strategies to secure the future of beef producers in Ireland.

However, with respect to these people, most commercial farmers know from bitter experience that encouraging us to invest heavily in increased production can be totally counter-productive and result in an over-supply situation which invariably reduces cattle prices.

Leadership

Decades of lobbying by farming representatives hasn’t proved successful either, so it appears highly unlikely in the short to medium term that we can look forward to any meaningful rise in prices.

So what can be done to save our industry?

Irish beef farming is in serious need of strong visionary and proactive leadership; we know that we produce some of the best food in the world, so there is no reason why our food can’t command a premium price in the EU and indeed the global marketplace.

In the US, for instance, there is a growing premium market for beef which has been fed solely on grass, with no grain whatsoever in their diet.

With our unique climate advantage and the ability of much of our farmland to finish cattle on grass alone, I believe that this is a premium market which we could readily

supply at very little extra cost or alterations to our production system.

Unfortunately, it is now a number of years since our then Minister for Agriculture, with much razzmatazz, announced the opening up of this US market.

I know silence is golden but perhaps someone would be kind enough to tell Irish cattle farmers what has happened since then – where is the beef?

The time is well overdue for people in positions of responsibility to realise that you cannot build a sustainable industry on political hype and a succession of publicity stunts and initiatives.

No one knows this better than Irish beef farmers.

Online Editors