How can Irish beef producers survive in global race to the bottom on standards?

Robin Talbot pictured on the family farm in Ballacolla, Co Laois is a lifelong suckler farmer. Photo: Alf Harvey
Robin Talbot pictured on the family farm in Ballacolla, Co Laois is a lifelong suckler farmer. Photo: Alf Harvey
Stock Image: PA

Robin Talbot

On a recent visit to a supermarket I was shocked at the sight of soft drinks being sold in gallon containers and giant packs of cheesy puffs that were as light as air, among a vast array of foods that were processed within an inch of their life.

Don't worry, this supermarket wasn't in Ireland (yet!), but rather in Amarillo, Texas, which I got to visit as part of a trip to the US to attend the Alltech One19 Ideas conference in Kentucky.

One of the highlights was getting to see an American feedlot for the first time. The feedlot we visited had 50,000 cattle and 46 people employed. It was owned by a company that finished in excess of one million head of cattle a year.

The cattle were all sourced from breeding (what we would call 'suckler') herds, with none from the dairy herd.

They came from every corner of the USA and Mexico, with some of them spending in excess of 24 hours on a lorry to get to the feedlot.

We saw some cattle that had just arrived the evening before. The consensus among the Irish farmers on the trip was that the cattle were of very poor quality, in terms of shape.

Certainly if they went through a mart in this country, it would be hard to find a customer for them.

So, as regards beef breeding, Ireland is a long way ahead.

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But the transformation of these cattle as they moved up through the feedlot is very striking.

This is due to the use of hormones, which are routinely used and freely available, a subject about which the feedlot was very open and transparent.

At the conference, one of the speakers said that, "not using hormones was the dumbest idea she ever heard." Those were her actual words. She went on to explain how she thought that hormone treated beef is actually more sustainable for the environment because it is "more efficient."

The other interesting thing at the feedlot is that the cattle had no individual identification until they arrived, at which point they were tagged, weighed and hormone-ed.

So traceability only went back to the last source farm as a batch number.

Some of the cattle were owned by the feedlot and some were being fattened on contract for customers. But one thing that struck me is that, when a batch came in for contract finishing, the feed price per day was locked in on arrival.

One thing they have a big emphasis on is antimicrobial resistance.

This seems to be the only issue that consumers are concerned about.

We also called into a farm store, where we saw animal medicines on a display table, with a huge sign that read, "50% OFF, CLEARANCE, (Expired or past Best Used By Date). You could also buy antibiotics off the shelf.

In a more general sense, I was shocked at the level of rural decline we saw in Texas. In many of the small towns that we passed through, an awful lot of the houses were either empty or in very poor repair.

I found the conference part of the tour, in Lextington, to be quite amazing.

In particular, the calibre of the speakers was excellent.

The keynote speaker on the first day was Bear Grylls. I was familiar with him from TV, as an adventurer and survival expert.

He was simply inspirational. He was one of the youngest people to climb Mount Everest, and what made it all the more amazing is that he did so six months after breaking his back.

Saying that, "failure made him", he spoke about his first parachute jump after the one in which he broke his back (when the chute failed to open). He was petrified but overcame it.

His advice was "confront your fears," as when we run from something, it actually gets worse. "Always be on the edge of your comfort zone," he said, and "always a little further, Everest is a state of mind".

After listening to him, I almost felt that I could tackle Everest myself.

Another speaker used the line, "change is the only constant" and that got me thinking about what we do on our own farm.

In short, we do what we can to make it work financially.

At an international level, there appears to be a race to the bottom on beef.

Irish farmers and most other European farmers can't compete on price against beef produced in the way we saw it being done in America. But we certainly can compete in terms of the integrity of the product.

Consumers, as well as beef farmers, are at a crossroads.

Continuing as we are - to produce food to the high standards that we currently do, is not a viable option.

So, should the standards fall or the prices rise?

Indo Farming

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