Ann Fitzgerald: 'Kepak's new direction on beef is a worry for suckler farmers'

Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

Two recent moves by a meat processor have given the clearest indication yet of the changing landscape in Irish beef production.

A few weeks ago, Kepak and dairy processor Glanbia Ireland (GI) announced the establishment of a pilot "Twenty20" programme aimed at increasing the amount of beef coming from the dairy herd.

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It is anticipated that 6,000 calves will enter the scheme this year, rising to 50,000 by 2022. The club is open to Glanbia Co-op members and current Kepak suppliers.

The other move was Kepak's announcement that it was going to "temporarily suspend" the planned production of KK heifer beef this summer.

It explained that the main customer for KK heifer beef, Co-Op Italia, was "undertaking a review of its meat protein supply chains" and cited "changing customer preferences".

However, there are fears that this is a step towards the demise of a scheme which was once held up as the standard bearer of the Irish beef industry.

Set up in 1999, its aim is to produce beef for the high-priced Italian market. It is focussed on the production of Continental breed heifers and especially bulls. Animals are finished on a diet that ensures the meat is characterised by the pale colour and white fat valued by the target consumer.

Re the Twenty20, maybe I missed it, but the target market hasn't been specified.

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Fairly similar sentiments are expressed in the details of both schemes, with the blurbs even using the same term - "truly integrated supply chain".

At the recent launch, John Horgan, Chief Executive of Kepak Group, pointed out that this would result in a "closed loop". (Calves sourced from outside the farm have to come from GI suppliers and any feed used that's not produced on the farm has to come from GI.)

But surely when it comes to "closed loops", many suckler farmers would have fully integrated systems, with animals being finished on the farm that they are born using home-grown ingredients.

Two big differences between the two schemes are that the most efficient feed conversion animals, young bulls, are excluded from the Twenty20, and the focus is on the dairy herd offspring. Suckler farmers are wondering where it all went wrong for them. They chased the efficiencies and the specs… but was there an even more fundamental change underway?

I am very disappointed by the response of the IFA to the Twenty20 launch.

By all means, welcome the effort to make dairy beef work, but surely this should have been qualified: how come there was no mention of the dire state of suckler beef and surely they should have also looked for a commitment from Glanbia to source as much feed ingredients as possible from within Ireland.

More than that, there is a lack of cohesion between the various farm bodies over what should be done for the suckler sector.

And what about reports that Bord Bia, already under increasing pressure over perceived lack of returns to farmers from the Quality Assurance scheme, is hoping to start labelling and promoting Irish suckler beef in premium markets this year?

At the Twenty20 launch, John Horgan was quoted as saying that a suckler beef brand would not meet the requirements of their customers, rather pointing out that other attributes, such as grass-fed, have more resonance.

This is a very telling comment of where Kepak is going on beef.

There is a very obvious appealing logic to the notion of the one cow producing a calf that can become a decent beef animal while, once the calf is on the ground, the cow can get on with the main business of producing lots of high fat and protein milk.

In terms of Ireland's Green image, this would also solve the issue of the bobby calf.

Will that day come?

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