Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

Beef: British farmers beef with Irish imports doesn't stand up to scrutiny

Phil Deegan, Donard, Co Wicklow won the Best Cow class at the mart in Kilcullen Show and sale last week Roger Jones
Phil Deegan, Donard, Co Wicklow won the Best Cow class at the mart in Kilcullen Show and sale last week Roger Jones

Gerry Giggins

Last week I spent three days along the east coast of England on a whistle stop tour of beef finishing units. As is the norm when meeting with British beef farmers, the importation of Irish beef and its effect on the British beef price invariably comes up in conversation.

I always counter this argument by pointing out that the feed input prices are normally much lower than here in Ireland due to the widespread availability of human food waste, brewing and distilling by-products and energy/ ethanol production.

The marketing of British beef through various schemes along with the use of the Red Tractor brand, creates great consumer awareness and ensures a price premium over imported beef in restaurants and supermarkets.

These factors make it difficult to understand the British beef farmers' obsessive complaints about Irish beef being 'dumped' on their market. Looking a little closer to home may serve them better.

As highlighted, there are many competitive advantages that British beef farmers have in regards to production costs.

On every visit across the water, I always notice the opportunity that is being lost through the poor use of grazed grass. While a high importance is placed in Britain on the production of high quality forage, the utilisation of quality grazed grass is greatly neglected.

This is common in both the beef and dairy sectors, with the crisis in the British dairy industry highlighting the need to produce more milk from grazed grass. The utilisation of grazed grass is in stark contrast with the excellent results being achieved here in Ireland.

British cereal farmers are getting low grain prices, in many cases even lower than prices here. Traditionally, English beef finishers relied heavily on cheap cereals, having developed 'barley beef' systems that gave great performance at low input costs.

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However, in the last decade, I have noticed a move away from grain towards finishing systems that are heavily dependent on by-product feeds. While this initially made financial sense, the current price gap between by-product feeds and cereal grain means that a lot of these systems need urgent re-evaluation.

Vegetable waste

This year, in particular, the collapsing grain price has not been tracked by a corresponding drop in by-product price. In my opinion, the potential to make reductions in the price of finishing rations, by including cereals at the expense of some of these by-products, could be substantial.

The most common by-products available are vegetable waste, fruit waste from the juicing industry, residues from potato processing, distillery and ethanol by-products, and bread and confectionary waste. On many of the farms that I visited, vegetable and potato by-products were being used.

These products were freshly supplied and palatable, with storage being simple and effective. Where used, high inclusion rates of vegetables was common and in a lot of cases no forage was being included, with straw, protein balancer and minerals included in a diet feeder.

In some cases, the only cost against the vegetable waste was transport, meaning the overall ration costs were 50pc lower than most Irish finishing rations. Performance from this type of ration, particularly when housed on straw bedding, was surprisingly good.

My greatest surprise was the poor storage of bread and distillery products. Where supply was matching consumption on the farms (i.e. a load being used every four to five days) the feeds were being fed fresh.

However, in cases where the storage period was longer (i.e. greater that a week) I witnessed huge problems being encountered. Poor storage was resulting in moulds, fermentation and weight losses, mycotoxin infestation and reduced animal performance.

On one particular farm using bread, over a four week period, 25t was fed from a 29t delivered load.

This 4t loss only accounted for what the farmer removed as damaged material and fermentation losses. The effect on the health and performance of his animals is incalculable.

Simple storage guidelines available from suppliers will minimise losses and reduce risk when feeding and should be followed rigorously.

Gerry Giggins is an independent animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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