'Serious beef farmers are hurting badly'

Suckler farmers' confidence is at an all-time low even though our beef producing heritage should be the envy of Europe

Robin Talbot pictured on the family farm in Ballacolla, Co Laois is a lifelong suckler farmer. Photo: Alf Harvey
Robin Talbot pictured on the family farm in Ballacolla, Co Laois is a lifelong suckler farmer. Photo: Alf Harvey

Robin Talbot

In the next couple of years, we are going to have to make a serious decision about whether we continue suckling. I have never felt as disillusioned about it as I do now.

This year has been the perfect storm.

First thing was the weather.

We started off with a late spring, so the remains of the winter feed had to be stretched out to the very last and the stock missed a month's grazing.

After an excellent few weeks growth, drought kicked in.

We ended up taking lighter than anticipated cuts of first-cut silage, got no second-cut at all and only a small third-cut.

The only thing we hope will get us through this winter is that we kept extra straw and barley, from our tillage enterprise.

However, we are not certain that we have enough feed, which is a stressful situation.

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Then there's the price. Irish beef prices usually track the British trade but they have recently diverged. The weekly kill is not running much ahead of last year. It appears that there is excess profit-taking by the market; they will deny it and we can't prove it.

If prices had stayed parallel, beef animals would be making €100 more per head at the moment, give or take a few quid.

But the really big thing this year, that has put the tin hat on everything, is the way the suckler cow is being talked down, that she somehow is in the way.

The tide started to turn when milk quotas ended. I don't want to pit one farmer against another but, when quotas went, official Ireland took the attitude that everybody should go milking cows

I don't begrudge the dairy farmers one penny they make, they work bloody hard for it. But basically the message seems to be that suckler cows should go to make way for the expansion of the dairy herd, in terms of carbon footprint.

I wonder if someone somewhere has set a figure of 500,000, the number of suckler cows referenced in the budget, that official Ireland would be happy to let them fall to?

The genomics scheme and the BEEP are all fine and dandy but the suckler farmer and the suckler cow need a lift in the here and now.

If there was a will in the Government, the suckler way of farming is tailor-made for some sort of an environmental scheme that could be the envy of other beef producing countries.

What really gets me are the various underlying contradictions in what is happening.

Carbon footprint

Everybody knows that dairying is more profitable than beef and it is constantly trumpeted that Ireland is one of the most sustainable producers of milk.

But Ireland is also a very sustainable producer of beef. The carbon footprint of Irish beef, 19kg CO2-eq, is far lower than, say, Brazilian beef, at 80 kg when land use change is included or 48kg when land use change is not.

I find it hard to see how an extensive grazing system with low stocking rates could be doing more harm to the environment than a system where the stocking rate is far higher?

It really annoys me that the suckler cow is taking all the hit for the environment, the sense being that, if we get rid of her, we will be grand.

What does the science really say?

There used to be a saying a couple of generations ago that the Australian economy was riding on the sheep's back, I would argue that the suckler cow currently does a similar job in rural Ireland.

Rural tourism is very dependent on the quality of the natural environment, with images of a clean and green environment being widely used in promotional materials.

The same kind of image is used to sell Irish beef. Indeed, I recently heard an industry representative say they would not be able to market Irish beef without this image.

And there are other contradictions - for example, the industry constantly tells us that they want a lighter carcase. But this is not being incentivised.

The introduction of the QPS in 2010 brought a financial recognition to the better shaped animals from the suckler herd. This was to be price neutral.

There are now calls to have the grid dismantled and/or for the base price to be set on a lower grade. But, the grid is based on science and that would now tell us that the price differential between grades should actually be widened.

A few weeks ago, I was at an IFA meeting in Portlaoise. It was unlike a meeting that I have ever attended. I have never seen the mood and confidence as low.

Nobody was ranting and raving. People spoke from the heart and you'd know they were really hurting. These were serious beef farmers who I would consider role models in the industry.

I feel sad that Ireland seems to be prepared to throw away an industry, an asset of one million suckler cows, that took generations to build up.

Nobody in authority or anyone that benefits from the Irish suckler herd seems to want to take a stand on it.

The suckler cow will not disappear overnight but, as suckler farmers die out, the next generation is not going to keep them.

In terms of addressing carbon footprint, surely the only hope of progress is for individuals to take responsibility for controlling their own.

We are taking steps to address our carbon footprint; we joined GLAS and are in the process of planting 10ac of native woodland. In conjunction with Alltech, we have done a scientific calculation of our carbon emissions and are taking on board their advice about ways to reduce our footprint.

We believe it is the right and responsible thing to do.

This should add to the price of what we are selling if the consumer is genuinely interested and places a value on it.

We hope that they will. But we're not holding our breath.

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