Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for traditional beef farming?

Losing battle? Excluding subsidies, cattle rearing lost money every year between 2011-18
Losing battle? Excluding subsidies, cattle rearing lost money every year between 2011-18
Mike Brady

Mike Brady

Over 30 years ago, I attended a second-year economics lecture as part of my Bachelor in Agricultural Science degree at University College Dublin. It was delivered by the Late Professor Seamus Sheehy.

As a farmer's son somewhat green to the economics of Irish agriculture, I was surprised to hear Professor Sheehy's description of Irish beef farmers.

He described beef farming in Ireland as an enterprise which was difficult to explain from an economics perspective.

Beef farmers, he explained, did not make money but yet they continued to farm on.

In the early 1980s, Professor Sheehy famously and correctly predicted the EU would opt for milk quotas to control the overproduction of milk across Europe.

After 31 years, the milk quota era ended in 2015 and it has proceeded to radically change the face of Irish dairy farming.

The question is, are we currently witnessing the end of traditional Irish beef farming as we know it?

If one agrees with the old British colonial adage of 'divide and conquer', then beef farming in Ireland is doomed, especially if judged by the number of representative organisations defending it today.

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The Irish Farmers' Association (IFA), Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association (INHFA), Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers' Association (ICSA), Irish Creamery Milk Supplier Association (ICMSA) and the Beef Plan Movement (BPM) are all competing for airtime and column inches to further their vision for the future of beef farming in Ireland.

The first step is surely to join together and present a united front to fight for the cause. It will take a brave member in any of the organisations to promote this suggestion.

It's as clear as night follows day that without unity, the beef farmer will be defeated.

If these organisations put their differences aside and formed a "united coalition for beef farmers" just for a fixed period of time --i.e. until the end of the next EU CAP reform to negotiate through this critical period -- it has the potential to be the saving of the sector.

The next step is to set out what exactly to fight for.

Now, this will be the most difficult task of all, as it's the very reason why we have so many organisations in the first place - they cannot agree on what to fight for.

Aid measures

This is very evident in the current side show about allocation of funds in the Beef Exceptional Aid Measure Scheme (BEAM).

Ultimately, no matter how the funds are allocated, it will not take Irish beef farmers out of the present morass. It's just a diversion from the core problem.

Going back to Professor Sheehy's comments, we must first ask ourselves why do Irish beef farmers get out of bed every day and farm?

In my opinion, these are the main reasons:

  • Continuing the family tradition.
  • It's a hobby.
  • It's the only way of life they know.
  • They are farming to maximise the drawdown of subsidies and premia.
  • It's the only enterprise suitable for the farm.
  • They fear a change of enterprise, i.e. to dairy.
  • Pride.
  • Fear of bank debt.

Tradition, way of life and as a hobby are in my opinion the top three reasons why beef farmers continue to farm and keep stock year after year.

Maximising subsidies and premia helps fund this obsession, but farming for profit is clearly bottom of the list.

We already know this, it is well documented annually in the Teagasc National Farm Survey results from 2011-2018 in the above table.

The average beef farmer (cattle rearing) farmed 31 hectares in 2018, and when subsidies are removed they lost on average of €4,791.

Now this was supposed to be a terrible year, but the average loss between 2011-2018 was €3,287.

In fact, cattle rearing and sheep lost money, excluding subsidies, every single year in the period examined.

Therefore step number two; it is important from the outset to recognise that Irish beef farmers do not farm for profit, they farm for tradition or pleasure. Again, this emphasises the futility of the furore over the BEAM scheme and Mercosur deal.

If the united coalition for beef farmers formulate a vision for the future based on reality, will the perceived demise of the Irish beef farmers be halted or will Professor Sheehy again be proven right in that "most will continue to farm on anyway".

Mike Brady is managing director at Brady Group agricultural consultants & land agents; email: mike@bradygroup.ie

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