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Beef and sheep price collapse leaves farm sector facing financial crisis

Base quotes for beef slip to just €3.50 per kg and sheep prices plummet as French market dries up

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Food producers are battling the closure of lucrative markets. Photo: Getty

Food producers are battling the closure of lucrative markets. Photo: Getty

Getty Images/Westend61

Tara McCarthy, CEO of Bord Bia

Tara McCarthy, CEO of Bord Bia

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Food producers are battling the closure of lucrative markets. Photo: Getty

Farmers and food producers are facing a financial crisis as prices and markets continue to collapse due to the impact of the Covid-19 emergency.

Food producers are battling the closure of lucrative markets worth hundreds of millions to the sector, Bord Bia has warned.

The meat industry alone has seen at least a third of its €1bn market in the UK wiped out overnight with the closure of restaurants and food-service outlets, said Bord Bia CEO Tara McCarthy.

And farmers have been rocked by beef price cuts of 10-15c/kg which has seen base quotes for bullocks and heifers slip to €3.50/kg.

Quotes for cull cows have also been slashed, with reductions of 20-30c/kg reported as the closure of the fast-food sector and other retail outlets across Europe hits demand for manufacturing beef.

In another worrying development for beef finishers, factories are reportedly taking a tougher line on heavy cattle.

One agent told the Farming Independent "weight penalties are being applied on cattle over 420-430kg if you can get a factory to take them".

And the beef trade is also being undermined by the closure of the marts, which has left farmers with no clear means of valuing their stock.

Following an intense series of discussions between ICOS and the Department of Agriculture, Food and The Marine, marts will be allowed to handle livestock trading in a limited way.

New procedures which had been proposed by ICOS would typically include marts using their databases to match sellers with potential buyers according to the type, weight, breed of animals for sale, and ideally agreeing a price per kilo prior to a sale being finalised.

IFA livestock chairman Brendan Golden said farmers and factories needed to work together to steady the trade at this critical time. He also warned farmers against moving any under-finished cattle.

"With orderly marketing, cattle supplies are expected to tighten over the next number of weeks, and this should help steady the trade," he said.

He added that there is a major responsibility on the factories not to pull prices and undermine the trade.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) said: "Despite the major market impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on meat markets across Europe, in particular the food service channel, meat processing is continuing today at facilities across the country, albeit at reduced levels."

However, MII senior director, Cormac Healy, said the Covid-19 pandemic was causing serious devaluation of finished livestock prices.

"Certain EU markets are effectively closed and the mix of sales through retail outlets is skewed heavily towards lower value cuts," he said.

MII is now calling for EU supports to help the industry deal with the crisis.

"While traditional market supports (intervention and APS) may not work in this case, other forms of support must be brought forward by the European Commission without delay," said Mr Healy.

Sheep trade

The slump in French demand for lamb has seen sheep prices take a hammering over the last two weeks.

Quotes from ICM and Dawn Ballyhaunis for hogget and new-season lamb are back by 60c/kg since last week.

Hoggets are being quoted at a base of €5.00+10c/kg, while ICM was the only operator willing to quote for spring lamb with its price set at €5.90+10c/kg.

ICSA president Edmond Phelan said the marts' closure coupled with serious volatility in the beef and lamb markets will play havoc with the cashflow on many farms at a time when money will be needed for fertiliser, meal, diesel and first-cut silage.

ICSA has called on the Government to launch an Extraordinary Agricultural Programme to support a crisis fund for farming.

This could be used to support a programme of aids for private storage or intervention-buying of beef and lamb, said Mr Phelan.

"The key here is a programme of limited quantities for where specific markets have evaporated. For example, the closure of McDonald's, and lower demand for lamb in France. However, the price must be set to ensure no price drop for farmers," he said.

Meanwhile, guidelines issued by the Veterinary Council of Ireland (VCI) have urged vets to confine their services to those supporting food production, in addition to emergency care of animals.

TB testing is continuing, as well as the sale of essential animal medicines. VCI has also requested that all vets over 70 years of age and those with underlying health conditions should cocoon, as per Government advice.

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