Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Opinion: Why are the primary producers of what is one of Ireland's main export earners paid so badly?

Controlling costs is one of the most important issues in the running of any business
Controlling costs is one of the most important issues in the running of any business

John Heney

Absolutely shocking but tragically no longer surprising, this year's Teagasc National Farm Survey once again shows that the farmers who supply the cattle for Ireland's huge beef and cattle export trade, which amounted to over €2.5bn in 2015, are being literally paid in buttons - on average about €12,000 to €16,000 a year.

Of course looking at overall figures can distort the real picture, so I think it could be useful to again take a look at the figures for larger "commercial" cattle farms, say the 125 acre to 250 acre (50 to 100 ha) sector.

Here, we see a slightly better picture, however when we consider the huge investment in land, stock and equipment plus the long hours worked on these large so-called commercial farms, an average return of €10,000 less than the average industrial wage on these larger farms shows the income situation on cattle farms to be little more than a joke.

You see, to earn the average industrial wage, you work just 36 hour each week and in most cases you are not required to invest a brass farthing of your own money.

I believe it is fair to say that in any other modern society or economy people such as cattle farmers, who year after year make such huge economic sacrifices for the national good, would surely be regarded as true patriots.

Recent industrial unrest would, however, suggest that there are very few other sectors in Ireland who are prepared to go down this "patriotic" route.

'Uncomfortable questions'

These miserable income figures do, of course, raise some very uncomfortable questions.

Also Read

• Why are the primary producers of what is one of Ireland's main export earners paid so badly?

• Why do cattle farmers continue to put up with this situation year after year when other sectors rightly protest when their much higher incomes come under threat?

Perhaps a book - 'Status Anxiety', written by Alain De Botton and referred to by my colleague Joe Barry in his article some months back - could hold the answer.

De Botton argues that it's simply human nature for us to be concerned about how we are perceived by others in our societal group.

De Botton points out that it is only since 1776 that status has been aligned with financial achievement. Originally, he argues that it could depend on one's ability to hunt or fight as a warrior or later, perhaps, being part of an ancient family, be a knight or indeed have close connections with nobility.

Judging by the miserable income figures shown year after year for cattle farming, it's blatantly obvious that income has little to do when ascribing "status" in the cattle sector.

So what are the attributes which currently appear to bestow status on a cattle farmer?

Recently in conversation with some very knowledgeable farming insiders, the consensus reached was that in most cases the "appearance" of being a very good cattle farmer was what was really important, far more so it appears than actually generating a decent living from your farm.

Could their suggestion that it's all about optics be correct? Could the presence of fancy fashionable stock, big new sheds, lots and lots of inputs, fancy new tractor and equipment and perhaps a really nice jeep and trailer really be the attributes by which our success is judged?

Not surprisingly, these are the types of things the mandarins of the agri-food sector continually encourage cattle farmers to spend their hard-earned money on - but then they would, wouldn't they? Sure, isn't that how they make their living after all, selling more and more stuff to farmers, whether we need it or not.

Controlling costs is one of the most important issues in the running of any business, and when the enterprise gives such a low return as beef production it is critically important.

I believe that we have some very successful cost-conscious cattle farmers in Ireland, but you'll never see them featured in our farming media winning awards.

They are far too busy getting on with the everyday running of their business, irrespective of what anybody thinks.

On the farm

With just one more load of beef cattle left to go, a better picture is now emerging on how things went this year.

The real stand-out feature for me was the substantial improvement in fat-score and kill-out weighs.

So far, carcass weights are up on average by at least 20kg, in part because of an increase in buying-in weights last autumn, but mostly because of a much better thrive this summer.

At the moment these weight increases appear to have compensated to some extent for the drop in factory prices. However, last week's continuing slide in factory prices will certainly change these figures.

Unfortunately, grades continue to disappoint, with P grades outnumbering O grades, the only positive being that the vast majority of those grading P were P+ and well fleshed.

Because of the continuing kind weather, my store cattle continue to do well. The challenge now is to get my putting-in date right.

This will involve finding the right balance between on one hand not letting the store cattle lose condition by keeping them out too long, while at the same time conserving as much of my limited supply of silage as possible.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary.

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