Gerry Giggins: British farmers still believe that Brexit will work in their favour

REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
Environment Secretary Michael Gove (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Gerry Giggins

Brexit D-Day is looming closer and we still have no sign of any resolution. The exposure of our agri food sector to Brexit, in particular a no-deal scenario, carries a huge amount of uncertainty and fear for Irish farmers.

Last week I spent three days across the Irish Sea on beef farms in the north of England and Scotland.

In contrast to the trepidation felt among Irish beef farmers, their counterparts in the UK, for the most part hold the belief that Brexit will benefit their industry.

They feel their domestic beef market and resulting prices have been diluted by imported product from within the EU, mainly from Ireland.

They hope that post-Brexit, demand and prices will strengthen for British beef and that they will be insulated from cheap imports into the European Union from South America. High welfare and environmental standards operated on British farms (ironically in many cases set by the EU) will lead to supermarkets and the consumer having a strong sentiment towards British beef.

Recent comments from Food and Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, indicated that Britain will impose tariffs and quotas on the importation of lamb, beef and dairy products in a no-deal Brexit situation, which will further improve the demand and prices for British farm produce.

Most farmers I spoke to voted to leave with a view to being free from EU rules and regulation. Ironically the exact same standards and regulations were given as reasons why they will benefit financially in the post Brexit future.

The profile of a beef farmer in the UK differs in many ways from here.

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The number of livestock farmers is significantly lower and the scale of farms is much larger.

On the six farms that I visited, the average suckler cow herd exceeded 300.

The national average for a commercial suckler herd in the UK is over 100 cows, while the average Irish herd is now under 20 cows.

On both lowland and upland herds, continental breeds predominate. Limousin/Simmental type cows crossed with mainly Limousin or Charolais sires are most common.

Traditional breeds, such as Aberdeen Angus and Hereford, aren't as widespread as one would imagine.

From speaking with farmers, the main reason for the continued predominance of continental breeds is the meat industry's desire for steer and heifer carcasses that are young, lean and well conformed.

Perhaps the UK supermarkets requirements for traditional breeds is coming from Ireland as dairy cross heifers and steers?

Suckler cow numbers have reduced slightly in recent times, but not to the same extent as here in Ireland and the farmers I spoke to are planning to maintain their current herd size.

Spring calving predominates, especially in Scotland, albeit slightly later in the spring than in Ireland.

Beef farms in the UK are more often than not, mixed with arable enterprises. The beef herd will graze parts of the farm not suitable for cultivation.

This grassland is usually set stocked over the summer months and improved grassland management is an area where the UK beef farmer could possibly learn from their Irish counterparts.

There is very little emphasis on early grazing, grassland reseeding or rotational grazing practices.

Aircraft hangars

These mixed enterprises benefit hugely from an abundance of straw for bedding cattle, perhaps a reason why early turn out of cattle is not as prevalent.

The beef enterprise benefits from the comfort and cleanliness offered from straw bedding, while the resulting farmyard manure or 'muck' is a huge resource for an adjoining tillage enterprise.

Slatted floor systems are very rarely seen on a beef unit in the UK. A lot of the recently constructed cattle houses more resemble aircraft hangars in size, with centre feeding passages raised above the cattle pens, to allow for the build-up of straw bedding over a five month period.

Cleaning or mucking out will only take place once cattle have gone to grass and the dung is left to compost until autumn spreading.

Another lesson I took from my visit was the dominance of the Irish meat processing companies throughout the region. Farmers, meat factories and retailers appeared to have a close relationship with good communication channels between each party.

Strangely, these relationships didn't appear to be benefiting the farmer through significantly higher rewards on their beef price.

A base beef price equivalent to €3.95/kg was common, and factory/retailer driven grids penalised heavily for fat scores above 4-, while rewards for better conformed cattle were similar to Irish levels.

I visited Thainstone mart in Aberdeenshire for their weekly Friday store sale.

Aberdeenshire is a densely populated cattle region with the mart attracting animals from as far away as the Orkney Islands and the Highlands. The mart bore resemblance to Cilin Hill mart in Kilkenny and traded 1,100 animals on the day; 99pc of these animals were of the continental breed type referred to earlier and most were coming for sale from the farms of their birth at 10-15 months of age.

On the day, trade was very brisk, with prices ranging between €2.40/kg-€3.00/kg. Interestingly, cattle from the islands would be held in lairage and fed at the mart for up to three days before the sale.

As I was sitting for lunch, I struck up a conversation with an elderly gentleman who had been attending the mart for over 60 years.

Upon hearing my accent, he reminisced about his trips to the west of Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s to buy top quality Irish store cattle, the quality of which he informed me that he couldn't source today.

His story made me think of the difficulties that such a journey would pose in the modern age of restricted cattle movements, a diminishing Irish suckler herd and possible hard borders post Brexit.

Gerry Giggins is an animal nutritionist based in Co Louth

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