Analysis: The real exodus from suckler farming could start when Genomics Scheme ends
At first glance, the latest data on the suckler herd presents a picture of a remarkably resilient sector where numbers have only slipped by an annual average of less than 1pc since 2010.
But it's probably the Beef Data Genomics Programme (BDGP) scheme that's holding off a bigger exodus from the loss-making suckler sector.
The BDGP has tied in approximately 28,000 farmers until 2020 in order to qualify for their annual slice of the scheme's €50m. It has effectively locked 580,000 cows into the sector for six years starting from 2015.
It's difficult to see the full effect of this scheme on trends because the data only goes to 2017, but it is noticeable that if we strip the 580,000 cows out of the figures for the last three years' data, we see the biggest annual fall happening in the most recent year.
While a 5pc fall in numbers in any single year may not be calamitous for the sector, it's likely that this is the thin end of the wedge.
A lot of beef farmers tell me they are just hanging on until the BDGP ends.
And if the anger at the Beef Plan Group meetings over the star system that now rates the breeding worth of beef animals is anything to go by, beef men can't get away from the scheme and it's genomic algorithms fast enough.
The prospect of a double-digit percentage drop in suckler numbers in the few years after the BDGP ends must be a serious worry for beef processors that rely on the bucolic images of sucklers grazing in the Irish countryside to market their product.
These billion-euro businesses will move heaven and earth to ensure that they keep as many beef farmers on the bandwagon, but I'm not convinced that they'll succeed.
While the new Beef Plan Group is admirable in terms of the passion and voluntary effort, I can't see it being enough to transform the fortunes of the sector.
At least one of the tails wagging the Beef Plan Group's dog appears to be the beef breed societies, with many of their leaders addressing each meeting. They don't hold back in their ridicule of the beef indexes, but I wonder if their grievances are a distraction from the real issues that have plagued pedigree beef breeding in Ireland.
I must admit to a nagging suspicion that their anger stems largely from the fact that they have invested millions in pedigree stock whose value has been devalued by the introduction of the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation's beef index. I was reminded me of the shock my dad got when the precursor to the EBI index for dairy animals was introduced around 2000. It basically told dairy farmers to stay away from the high-yielding Holstein genetics that he had spent a lifetime accumulating in his herd.
At least the pedigree dairy man was able to take the hit, re-boot the breeding programme and move on.
The pedigree beef man has little incentive to rebuild his system. And the nest-egg of those fancy Charolais or Limousin genetics are devaluing by the day.
Those relishing the chance to give the beef index system a good thrashing at Beef Plan meetings should ask themselves why the same scientific approach wasn't abandoned years ago by dairy men.
The reality is that genomics works, but it will take time for the dubious data generated by some breeders to be washed out of the system.
In the meantime, if the Beef Plan Group allow fake facts to determine their agenda, they may well end up accelerating the decline of the sector they are striving to save.
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