John Heney: Beef sector needs change - not more whingeing

Beef farmers at Baltinglass Livestock Mart, Co Wicklow. Photo: Kevin Byrne
Beef farmers at Baltinglass Livestock Mart, Co Wicklow. Photo: Kevin Byrne
Farmers take their grievances to the streets of Dublin during the 1966 protests which saw then NFA president Rickard Deasy lead a 217-mile march from Bantry to the capital to demand a fair deal for farmers.
Champion charolais: Jack Ward from Bantry with the champion Charolais cow, 'Cottage Gemma', at the Carbery Show, Skibbereen, Cork. Photo: Denis Boyle

John Heney

While it's very difficult not to be affected by the continuing stream of bad news surrounding our industry, inside our farm gates we have little to complain about this summer.

There are, of course, all the usual day-to-day issues which still need attention.

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For instance, grass had got a little ahead of my cattle grazing the paddocks, but having learned from last year's poor summer growth, I decided to wait a while - and sure enough a slowdown in growth on my farm from mid-June onwards got everything back on track.

Perhaps a little too well in the end, but hopefully the recent rain will help get grass back growing strongly again.

Like other farmers that I speak to, my cattle continue to thrive well in what is turning out to be a very good, if sometimes challenging, year in terms of grass management. My main focus, as always, is to get as much weight gain for as low a cost as possible so expensive meal feeding isn't really an option.

Controlling costs is what beef farming is all about and luckily it's the one part of our business that we can still control.

I got my second-cut silage in the pit about 10 days ago. Having only received a covering of well diluted slurry after the first cut, it still bulked out well. I was also able to cut an extra nine acres of grass which I had previously earmarked for grazing, but because of the good weather, I didn't need in the end.

Hopefully this means that I should be able to get my cattle into the shed a bit earlier this winter and perhaps reap the benefits next spring.

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Recently, as I was tidying out my desk, I came across some old farming publications. And as I read them, it made me realise that absolutely nothing has changed over the last few decades in cattle farming

'Drystock Farmers Want Action As Incomes Hit £76 A Week' read the headline from the December 1995 issue of the Drystock Farmer.

But for the change in currency, I could just as easily have been looking at last week's papers. So after more than 20 years of no change, I hope people will forgive me if I don't join in with our farming representatives and a few rural TDs as they jump up and down berating Brexit, Mercosur and anything else they feel that they can blame for our current problems in the cattle sector.

You would feel that after 20 years of banging their heads against a brick wall, lessons would have been learned by those charged with guiding our industry.

But what happens?

Our politicians and policymakers continue to speak out of both sides of their mouths as they encourage more intensive beef production while at the same time preaching about their deep concern on issues such as sustainability, climate change, biodiversity and our natural environment.

Our farming representatives, bereft of any vision for the future, continue to ignore the fact that their whingeing and populist displays of indignation have achieved little more through the years than a few crumbs thrown to beef farmers every now and then from Brussels, just to keep us quiet.

The reality is that a new enlightened, business-type approach to our beef sector is urgently required.

The current policy of cynically 'greenwashing' overproduced beef must be abandoned and replaced with more nature-based policies which protect the integrity of our island's unique natural environment.

Nature has blessed Ireland with fertile soils and perfect conditions for producing food.

This has placed us in an ideal position to grow high quality, naturally produced food and as luck would have it, we have a European market on our doorstep which is one of the most discerning and affluent markets in the world for high quality food.

Being blessed with this unique competitive advantage it is difficult to understand why, rather than playing to our strengths, we appear to be doing our level best to destroy this advantage with massive imports of GM feed-stuffs to finish our beef cattle.

A change in farming policy from over-producing to producing a lesser amount of far higher value, naturally produced beef would be a win-win situation.

Such changes would of course present their own challenges.

Any such proposals I believe would be warmly greeted and supported by Brussels, not just from an economic perspective but also because they would address a myriad of environmental issues such as our current methane emission difficulties.

Of course there are plenty of nay-sayers out there who will argue that such initiatives will never work. These people would prefer to sit on the fence moaning about the vagaries of the low value, global beef commodity markets.

Inevitably, however, when things go wrong, these people are always the first to run to Brussels with the begging bowl in hand.

Indo Farming

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