Farm Ireland

Monday 25 March 2019

Martin Coughlan: How does bull beef production tally with our 'green' farming image?

Martin Coughlan asks will Ireland become just another cheap beef producer?
Martin Coughlan asks will Ireland become just another cheap beef producer?
Martin Coughlan

Martin Coughlan

The most rapidly expanding section of beef production continues to be bull beef. But it's also the sector that has been hardest hit by the Brexit impact on beef prices with farmers facing the double-whammy of low payments and difficulty getting cattle killed.

The large number of farmers turning to bull beef in recent years highlights the breakdown in the production of grass-fed quality beef bullocks.

It is notable as it also means they are willing to turn their backs on the Quality Payment System for bullocks and heifers in the belief that bull beef is a more commercially viable option. The figures reflect the number of farmers willing to take that route. In 2002 the number of steers slaughtered stood at 862,357 compared to a figure of 39,609 for young bulls.

Yet by the end of 2018 bullock numbers had fallen back to 649,830, while young bulls jumped over five fold to 200,581.

Combined, the total of young bulls and steers in 2018 was 850,411 - this is 55,511 less than the combined young bull and steer figure of 901,966 for 2002.

Since 2010 the trend among bulls has tended towards significantly more U grades than R grades. They have climbed as high as 44.3pc for U grades and 2pc for Es in 2015. The reality is you don't get over 40pc of the bulls in this country into U grades unless your calf is good enough to begin with. Meaning many in quality suckling have turned their back entirely on the QPS. However, there has been a noticeable change with the expansion of the dairy herd and the decline in sucklers.

Last year just 2pc of the bull population slaughtered graded E, 38.3pc U, 27.6pc R, 27.1pc O, with P making up the balance at 4.8pc. The expansion in bull production throws up some serious issues for the marketing of Irish beef going forward. With many bulls seeing grass for possibly only the first six months of their lives where does that leave our green image?

The figures are now beginning to suggest that the level of dairy influence over bull grades is also increasing meaning that as their numbers increase, as has been shown this year, actually getting stock killed can be difficult.

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Is it time for the QPS system to see a significant bonus built into it to reward those who fatten stock from grass and not just on grades achieved? Many will argue it is. The industry needs to re-green its image and it needs to pay farmers directly for this.

Without measures that directly reward those who can show that their beef is actually properly grass reared, Ireland will become nothing more than another cheap producer of manufacturing beef - regardless of whether the animal is of dairy or suckler origin and whatever the grade.

Reaction: Meat Industry Ireland 'concerned' about increased dairy influence on kill figures

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) senior director Cormac Healy said MII is concerned about the increased dairy influence showing through in the grading statistics.

"We are concerned about that as an industry. Our grassbased prime steer and heifer production system is not necessarily broken, but we do need to focus on what is happening on the breeding side and the increased output from the dairying sector.

"We need to keep working with ICBF and on our breeding programmes. We have to find ways of encouraging the uptake of the new Dairy Beef Index among dairy farmers and trust in the science of breeding and genomics and other knowledge transfer measures to ensure that we deliver an improvement of the grade profile.

"The mechanical grading system that we have in the country has delivered consistency and uniformity and brought objectivity to the grading process. There is a Department-led trial about to be concluded which is looking at the uptake of the latest camera technology to ensure that the system is future-proofed. We continue to look at other areas of grading technology as well.

"Certainly there has been an increasing number of calls in the public arena for the QPS to be reviewed and the industry is open to this."

ICMSA: Losses from QPS far outweigh the gains for farmers

Des Morrison, chair of ICMSA's Livestock Committee, said that he is not surprised by the figures which he says show that the Quality Payment System (QPS) has failed in its objective of improving the grades of cattle .

The losses suffered by farmers under the QPS far outweigh the gains made by farmers, said Mr Morrison. "The QPS is, in particular, unjustifiably severe on dairy beef production and continues to undermine this hugely important aspect of beef production.

"The reality is that the QPS and its related specifications has placed way too many penalties and restrictions on beef production and has removed any flexibility or margin that might be in the system.

"There should be an independent assessment of the mechanical grading system to establish if it has led to more severe grading as suspected by farmers and secondly, the QPS grid needs to be completely reformed and implified. It also needs to recogniseand incentivise beef production from the dairy herd.

"The reality is that dairy beef production will represent the majority of beef produced in Ireland going forward.

"The QPS needs to acknowledge this and incentivise rather than penalise beef production from the dairy herd. This should include the payment of the quality assured bonus on all animals from a quality assured farm irrespective of grade," said Mr Morrison.

ICSA: 'The grid is too complicated and needs to be simplified'

ICSA beef chairman Edmund Graham said that the grid payment system needs a full review.

"The substantial increase in lower grading carcasses which is linked to dairy expansion means that the grid is very unbalanced now compared to when it was introduced in 2009.

"We were told then that the cuts on lesser conformation animals would be compensated on a price neutral basis by increases on the U grade and R+ animals. A lot has changed since then.

"In particular, the war on heavy carcasses coupled with the switch to bull beef for sucklers means that there is a significant loss of money on O grade cattle and this saving is not being allocated to top quality carcasses from the suckler herd.

"ICSA believes the grid is far too complex and that a simplified grid is needed. Farmers are also convinced that grading is more severe with mechanical grading. All O grade cattle and all bulls up to two years old should get a QA bonus. We need an independent audit of whether the grid in its current form is price neutral compared to a simplified pricing system based on U,R and Os. The suspicion is that the grid along with other fake rules around 30 months, four movements and residency periods is being exploited by meat factories to short change farmers. Nothing less than a fundamental review will do."

IFA: 'Teagasc needs to review the dairy breeding policy'

IFA national livestock chair Angus Woods said the biggest contributor to the reduction in the percentage of R grade or better steers is the dramatic increase in the numbers of young bulls slaughtered.

"The young bull kill went from 46,385 in 2000 to 203,667 in 2018, an increase of 340pc. A lot of these animals are the better quality suckler weanlings. It is clear that the increase in the numbers of dairy cows and dairy progeny in the beef herd is also having a significant impact on conformation grades.

"In addition, breeding within the dairy herd has also undertaken major change over the years with more Holstein Friesian and cross breeding in recent years.The number of live exports and particularly calf exports and weanling exports also have a major impact on the conformation grades."

"Our breeding policy is a critical component to the conformation of our beef output. Teagasc needs to relook at the dairy breeding policy. We need greater up take of the ICBF Dairy beef index."

He added that "Minister Creed has to be able to provide farmers with a 100pc guarantee on mechanical classification and weights as this is what is used to determine payment to farmers."

On the QPS, he said IFA is very clear that farmers must be properly rewarded for quality and is pushing for an increased price premium for quality suckler beef.

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