Beef price hike now essential to salvage the embattled grid

John Shirley

All hell has broken out over the introduction of the quality payment grid for beef cattle. This changeover was never going to be seamless. Objections are inevitable where a large section of cattle owners are losers.

But the malcontents are more widespread than just dairy farmers and producers of plain cattle. I spoke to feeders with quality cattle and they were also hostile to the change. Even IFA president John Bryan seems to be distancing himself from the new payment system.

Why is there such widespread animosity to what should be a progressive and desirable step? Payment for quality and saleable product must be the way forward.

The complexity of the grid, with its 15 conformation and 15 fat grades, is an issue. One man spoke of getting 10 different prices on a load of 14 cattle. There is also an innate suspicion and mistrust of the meat plants. Some farmers believe that factories, armed with internal information from their grading machines, have concocted a grid to swindle the farmers. The fact that young bulls have also been excluded from the new arrangement has not inspired confidence.

The truth is that the prices in the new grid are based on a large-scale Teagasc trial where 662 carcasses (including a range of steers, heifers and bulls) were boned out and detailed meat yields measured. The 662 carcasses had been graded mechanically in the 15x15 grid, and meat yield was related back to the grade. The price differences in the grid reflect the measured meat yield differentials. Meat factories had no part in this trial, which was published last October.

In the past, efforts to pay for beef cattle, on the basis of saleable meat yield, were thwarted by the lack of a simple and accurate system of measurement. Mechanical grading and the move to the grid seems to have filled this gap.

The price differentials in the Republic's plants are now somewhat greater than applies in Britain and Northern Ireland. But, equally, it can be argued that the new Irish grid differentials are still less than applies in markets like France and Italy.

No doubt the change to a new price grid is a major jump, but the issue has been 'long fingered' for decades. Could the change over have been introduced with less angst?

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Cattle farmers are certainly angry that for the second winter in succession there was no rise beef price. Given the gap between the Irish and British prices, surely there was scope to give a lift to the higher U and R grades, while the Os stayed put? This would have made farmers buy into the scheme. With 43pc of steers grading O and less than 6pc U, the new scheme inevitably creates more losers than winners in the absence of a significant price lift.

I harbour concerns that the grading in Irish plants is tougher than anywhere else in the EU. I always hear that it is easier to get U grades when you send the cattle across the border into Northern Ireland. I saw Irish-born young bulls and heifers being slaughtered in Italy and Spain. They were getting E and U grades that they would never attain in Ireland.

In Belgium there is a special S grade for double-muscle cattle, which is over and above the E-grade in the EUROP grid. In Ireland, in spite of us having the best continental breeds, E grades are as rare as prudent bankers. In the 2008 kill, E grades only accounted for 168 of 6,662,551 steers, and 137 of 360,791 prime heifers. Even in young bulls E grades made up less than 0.8pc of the total. What is the E grade about if the best continentals are not achieving this mark?

This severe Irish grading could be another reason why so many of the better weanlings are being shipped live.

It is certainly in the long-term interest of Irish suckler farmers and beef finishers that we breed and produce higher value livestock. It costs as much to breed the bad one as the good one. It is also in the interest of suckler farmers that home buyers are there competing with the live shippers. The price grid is a move in this direction but the factories must show better faith. A decent beef price lift would take a lot of the heat out of the current row.

Irish Independent

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