Farm Ireland

Wednesday 23 May 2018

Opinion: Brexit could force our politicians to face down the supermarket chains

Stock Photo. Picture: PA Photo/Chris Bacon
Stock Photo. Picture: PA Photo/Chris Bacon

John Heney

With the welcomed 'stretch' in the evenings and the fine January weather, I found that I was able to catch up on a lot of outside jobs which would normally have to wait until later in the spring.

A bundle of 80 creosoted stakes which I bought last month are nearly all gone now. They have certainly improved the farm's appearance; however, I still have a lot more maintenance work do.

I also took advantage of the fine weather to get some lime spread. This has reawakened a slight worry in my mind as to whether I should dose my cattle with copper next spring as my land may lie in a high molybdenum area, which when limed, limits the supply of copper to grazing animals.

There is still some room in my slurry tanks so I plan to wait another few weeks before I spread slurry on my silage ground. Ideal spreading conditions on my farm would be slightly damp weather but obviously not too wet so that the nutrients will be absorbed into the soil quickly.

Meanwhile, my Friesian stores are doing quite well on silage alone. All I expect from them is that they maintain their condition and continue to grow. As usual it will probably be late July or August before the first of these cattle will be 'fit' to sell.

The striploin steaks from one of my Friesian bullocks I bought back from the meat plant have all been consumed at this stage and I must say that I cannot wait to repeat the exercise next summer. The only regret is that I didn't think of doing it years ago, but then that was before we realised the unique qualities of beef 'finished' on grass alone -especially when it's old pasture with all its unique herbs.

I relation to my silage I was a bit uneasy about how quickly it was disappearing; however, since I started feeding first-cut silage the situation has greatly improved.

It's amazing how much more feeding there is in well compacted first-cut silage than in second-cut. I'm finding that the first-cut has at least a third more feeding volume in it than the equivalent amount of still well compacted second-cut.

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It does also explain why, what I thought was a decent first-cut last May bulked out so disappointingly in the pit - apparently it must have compacted extremely well.

Recent dire predictions of what Brexit will do to our cattle trade is of course deeply disturbing but I have a funny feeling that I've heard it all before.

Traditionally, cattle farming lurches from one crisis to another.

It's a 'given' that we never know really what's around the next corner, and there's no sign that this situation will change anytime soon.

After a recent chiding from one of my friends on the critical tone of some of my columns - which he later admitted results from me simply trying to tell things as they are - I promised myself that I would try to be more positive in this instalment.

So while it is difficult to argue with those who claim that producing beef cattle is more of a lifestyle choice than a business, there are very many farmers including myself who are totally reliant on cattle farming and who surprisingly continue to survive in spite of all our difficulties.

I must say that I have nothing but admiration for the many farmers who go down the route of feeding expensive beef breeds of cattle.

Unfortunately, when this is combined with the aid of their friends in the marketing sector, it appears to have led to a peculiar form of widespread bovine "racism". I have been advised many times by very reputable people involved in the food business that producing tender quality meat has little to do with a bullock's colour or what part of these islands or indeed mainland Europe his parents originated from.

Instead, the quality it depends principally on the diet which the beef animal was fed and whether it is 'finished' properly.

As I have already mentioned I proved this in that experiment with one of my own grass 'finished' cattle last year.

It also proved to me that if it takes a little more than 30 months to achieve a proper finish, it matters nought to the quality of the meat.

The ridiculous 30-month cut-off age is unfortunately the legacy of a tragic decision taken in the 1990s by people who controlled, but obviously knew little about, Irish agriculture.

Unfortunately, this same 30-month issue is now being used by large supermarket chains as a means of discounting the price which they pay for our beef.

Perhaps the challenges posed by Brexit will have a positive outcome after all.

It could at last force our Government to face down these anti-competitive practices and make a real effort to market our grass-finished beef internationally, as the unique quality product that it really is.

Sometimes when your back is to the wall that is the time when remarkable goals can be achieved.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

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