A phasing out of the current cattle grading system and a move to payment based on meat yield is being sought by the ICSA.
The drystock farmers' body has challenged Ireland's beef industry "to move into the 21st century" and reward farmers by paying for the lean meat their slaughtered cattle deliver.
This radical overhaul of beef payments is being sought against a background of falling factory prices and growing anger among beef producers, as processors continue to quote as low as €3.75/kg for steers.
ICSA president Patrick Kent claimed that the current factory grading machines were outdated, the current beef grid and payment system was not trusted by farmers, and suckler cow numbers were in danger of collapsing due to abysmal farmer returns.
"Payment on meat yield is the single most important strategy that could reinvigorate the struggling suckler sector," Mr Kent said. "If we want sucklers, we need to deliver prices that reflect the cost of the system. Suckler-bred animals are not getting the bonus that they deserve under the current [payment] system," he added.
ICSA is calling for payment on meat yield to move centre stage at the Beef Forum, and the association has invited the beef breed societies to contribute to the debate.
Moving to a meat yield system of paying for cattle would necessitate the replacement of the country's analogue factory grading technology with more precise digital equipment that could accurately calculate the lean meat content of carcasses.
ICSA said the existing factory grading machines were outdated and this had been highlighted at last month's International Congress of Meat Science and Technology in Cork. Mr Kent said that farmer dissatisfaction with the current beef grid needed to be accepted and addressed by the beef industry.
"Farmer trust in the grid system continues to be a major issue. Meat yield payment, using modern digital technology, should result in the farmer getting a price in closer alignment with what is sold on the shelf," he pointed out.
Although ICSA accepted that any changeover to paying for cattle by meat yield will take time and will need EU approval, the association insisted that now is the time to begin the debate.
"The reality is that competitor beef exporting nations such as Australia are also moving in this direction," Mr Kent said. ICSA suckler chairman John Halley said that suckler farmers have been looking for a signal that there is a future for their sector.
"Suckler farming cannot survive under a system where meat yield is not fully reflected and where weight and age are used to penalise quality animals," Mr Halley said.
"Schemes such as the BDGP are not enough to tackle the issue of low incomes in suckling. The bottom line for most farmers is that they want a fair return from the marketplace," he added.
Meat Industry Ireland's Cormac Healy said they would engage in discussions on saleable meat yield but it was not on the agenda in the short-term. "The current grading system is compulsory by virtue of EU legislation and we have an automated system that works well," he said.
However, they are looking at technical upgrades that could be applied to the current system, such as changing analogue cameras to digital, and hope to have those trialled shortly.
Both the EU Commission and Teagasc have predicted a significant decline in Ireland's suckler herd by 2025. It currently numbers around one million cows.
More beef is expected to come from the dairy herd, with a consequent decline in the meat yield from these lighter animals. Already this year factories report an average drop of 6kgs/animal in meat yield.
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