Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 February 2018

Beef: Cattle farmers operate in a fog of confused messages

The excellent late growth was an unexpected boost.
The excellent late growth was an unexpected boost.

John Heney

Recent downpours would suggest that Mother Nature has at last realised what season it is. However, the excellent late growth that we enjoyed most of this back-end was the icing on the cake as far as my farming year was concerned

Most years the returns for the last load of cattle I sell are invariably disappointing.

Happily this year broke the trend. Given that we are talking about dairy Friesian cattle coming off grass in mid November without meal, fat scores of three and four are quite impressive.

These results summed up 2015 for me - it was an excellent thriving year in spite of a limited supply of grass and below normal temperatures during key summer months.

On average, the price per kilo this year worked out at €3.72, which was about 40c more than last year.

Unfortunately this increase was wiped out by a corresponding increase in the price of store cattle, but that's the cattle trade - everyone must get their share.

Another bonus of the good autumn weather was that I was able to delay housing the first of my store cattle until December 1. They are now getting second-cut silage that looks very good and has very little waste.

It's a bit of a nuisance feeding the housed cattle and then having to look after the ones that still remain outside, but my silage supply situation is beginning to look a bit better.

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The recent spell of very heavy rain may be putting a spanner in the works but I am still determined to delay housing the remainder as long as possible. Hopefully I won't regret it too much next spring.

Meanwhile, I found the recently published Teagasc Annual Review and Outlook 2016 to be a very chastening document, providing very little comfort for cattle farmers.

The good news if any, was that cattle farmers didn't lose as much in 2015 as they did in 2014; the not so good news is that losses will probably increase again next year.

Cattle farming appears to exist in a fog of confused messages, dictates and regulations.

We are constantly being bombarded with terms such as 'environmentally sustainable production', 'sustainable intensification', 'quality assurance' and 'eco systems of sustainable food and drink' to mention just a few of the clichés.

In recent years we have also been presented with not one but two blueprints for the future of our industry, based principally on increasing output with little regard for farm profit.

In spite of all these blueprints the reality still remains that for every €10 the average cattle farmer spends on their farm they can only expect to get about €8 of that €10 back.

This means that most cattle farmers are wholly dependent on EU subsidies to survive. Without these EU supports cattle farming in its current form could quickly cease to exist in Ireland.

Basic common sense would dictate that like any other business, net farm income generated should be the measure of a farm's success, not farm output at any cost, as these blueprints appear to suggest.

They will never make the headlines, but I believe we already have a core group of Irish cattle farmers successfully running extremely cost-efficient enterprises that return them a reasonable income for their work.

Excellent research is already available, it's just a case of having the political will to stand up to the powerful agri-business sectors that thrive on high input farming and implement such a policy.

As if we haven't enough headaches, greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural activity, is the latest issue to appear on our radar. No one denies that bovines produce methane and research appears to show that grass fed cattle produce more methane gas than intensively fed cattle.

However, when you look at the full story, more recent studies suggests that when carbon sequestration and the carbon storage capacity of grassland pasture is taken into account, our grass-fed cattle systems can actually have a net beneficial effect on our environment.

Finally, I would like to wish everybody a very Happy Christmas. After a very busy year, we all deserve a break!

John Heney farms at Kilfeackle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming