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Absence of joined-up thinking has hurt our beef industry and left it battling a serious decline

Joined-up thinking is a cliche but the lack of joined-up thinking best describes the blunders perpetuated against the Irish beef industry. Primarily these misdeeds are down to Government and the Department of Agriculture. I tell you why.

Last week Teagasc organised a 'state of the industry' beef event in Kilkenny. The conference-cum-beef demo was highly topical, well-organised and addressed by good speakers. In short, Teagasc was doing its level best to address and arrest an industry in decline.

Despite this being a busy time on farms, the conference was well attended. The degree of the Irish beef decline was outlined by Dr Andrew Cromie from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF). This custodian of calf birth data told of the massive shrinkage in the Irish suckler herd.

Between 2007/8 and 2009/10 beef cow calvings fell by 123,565 from 1,009, 212 to 885,647. The ICBF data shows the decline continuing in spring 2011.

"More worryingly," added Cromie, "is the drop in beef heifer calvings, down 9.3pc/yr and the increase in beef cows being culled, up 13pc/yr."

If the exodus continues at this rate the entire beef herd will vanish by 2024.

All of this was predictable from the Government/Department decision to decouple (abolish) the suckler cow premium in 2005. Keeping a suckler cow on arable land without subsidy incentive was always problematic. The subsidy incentive drove the suckler herd from under 500,000 in the mid-1980s to over 1.2 million in 2005. Its removal can undo all that progress.

The surprise is that so many beef farmers continue to stay the course and subsidise production with their single farm payment (SFP). New 2010 profit-monitored farm figures given at the Kilkenny event showed that, on average, 13pc of the SFP was used to subsidise the enterprise. In Andrew Cromie's own field of cattle breeding, Trojan efforts are made to identify top bloodlines and fit out all cattle with eurostars for genetic potential. Yet, because the Department refuses to include the sire identity on the cattle passport, this breeding info is lost where the bulk of cattle are traded anonymously.

If top growth AI sires are identified, beef finishers cannot readily access this info. Buyers of breeding females from marts are not even given the info to avoid inbreeding. My third gripe with the Government/Department, and this too came up at last week's Teagasc conference, is the lack of leadership in tackling the damaging cattle diseases such as BVD, IBR and Johnes. While the rest of Europe rids itself of these diseases, Ireland dithers. In the absence of Department leadership on this issue, farm organisations should get off the fence and immediately get going on routing BVD.

Against this background, the conference organisers still sought to stress the positive. Star turn of the day was the publication of the latest results from the Teagasc/IFJ BETTER Farms project. This intensive investigative and advisory work with 16 suckler beef farms across the country has already made a national impact.

Teagasc beef specialists Aidan Murray and Shane McHugh explained how the incremental improvements in stocking rate, breeding performance, animal growth rates, grassland management, disease control, coupled with more astute marketing, has combined to almost double gross margins on the 16 farms over the past three years.

The pity is that the rewards for good technical performance from suckling are not even greater and that the business itself is not inherently more efficient. Again this comes back to the overhead of carrying the suckler cow.

The top farms are looking at outputs of about 700kg beef liveweight per hectare per year. At €2/kg this is a gross €1,400/ha. Take even the super high target of 666kg carcase/ha (not yet reached) for the Derrypatrick Herd at Teagasc Grange. At €3.50 a kg this is a gross of €2,330 per hectare.

At a goodish level of technical performance on a dairy unit you could be selling 15,000 litres/ha (2.5 cows at 6,000 litres per cow). At the Glanbia guaranteed price of 30c/litre (incl vat) for the next three years that's an output of €4,500/ha. From that sized cake there is the opportunity to have a decent share left for the farmer. Is it any wonder that some of the more energetic beef farmers are actively looking at dairying when the quota is gone.

Last week's conference was addressed by new Minister of State Shane McEntee. Both he and senior minister Simon Coveney are new brooms wanting to make a mark. Can they address the issues mentioned at the start of this article? The first two items will cost the exchequer nothing. In the case of the diseases, mostly we want ministerial leadership.

Notable conference points:

  • The use of the ear notch Enfer test on the Teagasc/IFJ BETTER farms uncovered 32 Persistently Infected (PI) BVD calves with two farms having 10 each of these lethal sources of infection.
  • Cavan and the midlands can equal Cork in total season grass growth according to figures given by Teagasc's Michael O Donovan. But Cavan's growth is bunched into mid-season and loses out in the valuable early spring and late autumn production.
  • Continental cows are tending towards 300-day gestation. This is putting extra pressure on achieving a 365-day calving interval, said Shane McHugh, special adviser with Teagasc Better Farms in the west.
  • Every day a cow goes over a 365-day calving interval is costing €7.40. Every day earlier that a suckler cow and calf can be put to grass in spring is worth €1.54.
  • Bulls are expected to make up 30pc of the male cattle kill this year. This compares with 16pc in 2009.

Indo Farming