Beef prices: Farmers' resolve on the picket lines could yet prove a game-changer

Protest: Farmers targeted beef plants around the country with pickets before talks began.
Photo: Frank McGrath
Protest: Farmers targeted beef plants around the country with pickets before talks began. Photo: Frank McGrath
Martin Coughlan

Martin Coughlan

"This has been our Brexit" said one factory/farmer agent I met at the Ploughing last week. He was referring to the fallout from the recent factory protests, where trade at all levels was seriously disrupted.

The worst-case scenario in any business is not poor prices or tariffs - it's having nowhere to go with your product, and it's even worse when that product is perishable.

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Whether we will see further disruption on the scale we have just witnessed when the UK leaves the EU remains to be seen.

The immediate priority is that factories get back into full swing as quickly as possible. Estimates put the overhang in the market at 90,000-100,000 cattle.

Bord Bia figures up to the end of the first week of August this year show that 925,461 prime cattle - steers, heifers and bulls - have gone thorough the system.

That's an extra 15,411 head compared to the same period last year.

On the cull cow side, the kill over the same time-frame stands at 246,814, which is 20,244 less than last year.

The deal struck by the farm organisations with the factories isn't perfect, but it does represent the single biggest review in how farmers are paid for stock since the introduction of the grid in 2004.

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All those involved the Beef Plan Movement deserve the greatest credit.

The approach of ordinary Beef Plan members to the various problems that developed during the campaign involved considerable resolve - a resolve not seen among the existing farm organisations for a generation.

So where are we now on prices?

Base prices yesterday saw bullocks universally on €3.50/kg, with heifers varying from €3.50-3.60/kg. Prices for bulls see U grades on €3.50/kg, Rs on €3.40 and O grades on €3.20/kg.

Of equal interest were reports that the negotiations that saw the last of the protests stood down at the Liffey Meats plants included guarantees that base prices for bullocks and heifers would not slip below €3.50/kg and €3.60/kg respectively between now and November 2.

This agreement is also understood to also include guarantees that the various bonuses agreed in relation to the grid during the first series of negotiations will also be implemented with immediate effect.

This is a huge departure from the traditional line adopted by processors. It proves that contracts between beef plants and supermarkets exist in a long enough time-frame to allow factories latitude to negotiate on prices with farmers' groups.

While certain factory groups have in the past offered contracts to feedlots or bigger producers, I never remember a time when an operator was willing to offer this level of certainty to ordinary farmers.

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