Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Beef: The question on everyone's lips is price

Predicting the price of cattle can be futile.
Predicting the price of cattle can be futile.

John Heney

Before the recent improvement in growth, the rel­uct­ance of grass to grow in any meaningful man­ner certainly posed major challenges for anyone involved in cattle farming.

The only saving factor was that cattle appeared to remain content on fields which had become very bare during the fine spell of weather in the latter half of April.

Because of the shortage of grass, it was May before the last of my cattle left the shed. Unfortunately, the delay in letting out cattle and the restricted supply of grass for cattle already out means that I have missed out on what is probably the most important part of the grazing season. Previous experience has taught me that it is very difficult to make up this loss of condition and weight gain later in the year.

The benefits of spring grass cannot be underestimated; I recently had the privilege of witnessing a very interesting example of how well cattle thrive on good spring grass. Two cattle bought by a friend increased in weight by 65kg from the time they were bought in mid February to being resold in mid April. They had spent the intervening period on a field of fresh young grass with just a small daily supplement of hay.

Even though the increase in weight was quite spectacular, unfortunately it did not result in any appreciable monetary gain because of the dampening effect poor growth had on the cattle trade. Another good example of the vagaries of the cattle business!

I continue to have difficulties with slats breaking and I had to replace another one recently; luckily I again escaped without any animals being injured. It does, however, reinforce the necessity for all my slats to be replaced.

I normally leave spreading the slurry remaining in the tanks after late winter until the following autumn, but as I need to have the tanks fully empty when putting in the new slats, I hope to empty the tanks after my first-cut of silage and get the replacement work done then.

Another concern which is weighing on everyone's mind at the moment is what will beef be making when it comes to sell our cattle?

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Predicting the price of cattle can be a very futile exercise but the omens are not very encouraging. Reports emanating from Brussels of the draft offer of 78,000t of beef to South American had sent a chill wind down many farmers' spines. Now it would appear that they have rowed back on sacrificing beef. However, that they were considering it to facilitate the interests of large powerful transnational corporations doesn't bode well.

This type of behaviour by the bureaucrats in Brussels would tend to support the contention expressed by many that the powerful EU "core" of Berlin, Paris and London has completely lost touch with "peripheral" areas like rural Ireland.

Something which is really bugging me at the moment is that no matter what farming media we turn on, we are subjected to an avalanche of advice coming from various "experts" on how to make more money.

Considering that income research indicates that the average Irish cattle farm will continue to run at a loss, I find it difficult to understand the ease with which some of these experts predict large increases in already non-existing profits if we follow their particular advice.

Claims of dramatic improvements in gross margin figures if certain actions and practices are carried out also appear less than useless. Try presenting gross margin figures to your bank manager and see what sort of a reaction he or she will give you.

Perhaps it's just me, but I find much of this "advice" extremely patronising and sometimes bordering on the offensive. Most Irish farmers have not alone accumulated vast amounts of knowledge and experience, but have also inherited generations of invaluable expertise.

Obviously, there is always room for improvement and cattle farming is no exception. A great deal of very useful and valuable research has been undertaken, the results of which are readily available.

However, sometimes you could be forgiven for feeling the experts think we are little more than a bunch of imbeciles.

To me, it seems that much of the advice coming from these experts falls into the 're-inventing the wheel' category and empirical evidence would also suggest that other proposals such as erecting large intensive feeding units involving huge financial investments, more often than not lead to little more than financial ruin.

With rapidly decreasing Basic Payments, there has never been a greater need to address the problems being experienced on our numerous loss-making cattle farms. Ask any business person and they will tell you that the real advice that is needed in situations such as these is not how to spend more money but how to save it.

Like any loss-making enterprise, this will involve the ruthless control of costs, which may often necessitate a reduction in output, but then output for output sake makes no business sense at all. These rationalisation measures will not result in the winning of any awards or accolades but they will go a long way to ensuring that your farm survives in what is becoming a very difficult and volatile farming climate.

When a farm has returned to profit, then is the time for drawing up plans for expansion and increased output but only if to do so makes sound economic sense.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming