Christy Comerford is one of the farmers behind a new campaign for a ‘carbon neutral’ beef scheme to deliver a fair price and living wage for suckler farmers
There is more political focus on than ever before on agricultural sustainability, at both national and European levels.
However, plenty of farmers are adamant that they are already producing a top-quality product, using environmentally friendly and sustainable practices. And they also argue that they need to be officially recognised and paid for this.
Christy Comerford is part of a national group of suckler farmers formed to campaign for the introduction of a carbon-neutral suckler cow scheme which they maintain would rejuvenate the suckler industry in Ireland.
Christy, who is vice-president of the Charolais Cattle Society and farms in Co Kilkenny, says: “We have a scheme lodged with the government, which will see sucklers cows farmed at a carbon-neutral level with greater emphasis on using fewer antibiotics and fertilisers.
“If we could introduce a scheme where all calves are vaccinated against IBR…there was an animal welfare scheme with this in the past, but that’s not there anymore and as a result, the animals got sick travelling abroad and we lost markets.
“If this could be reintroduced as part of our scheme, it would help regain those markets as well as improve human health because there would be fewer antibiotics in the meat.
“We’re hoping other groups and farm bodies will show their support for the scheme.
“The scheme would see all calves tagged with a green tag to signify that they qualify for the scheme.
“Although the scheme is calling for farmers to be carbon neutral, we believe a lot of what we’re doing is carbon neutral anyway.
“We want the Department to come and support what we’re trying to do. We want to get supermarkets, restaurants and fast-food outlets to take it on board so we can get paid (a premium) for our products.”
Part of the proposal for the next government states that there should be more funding for Bord Bia, to market Irish beef.
While Christy agrees Irish beef needs to be marketed properly, he believes the farmer’s bottom line has to be the priority for any marketing body.
“There is no point in big organisations getting funding if there isn’t any money left for the farmer because the numbers are going to dwindle and there’ll be no suckler cows left in the country,” he says.
“When the milk quota went, they (the government) wanted everyone to put their eggs in one basket and go milking.
“But the suckler cow is needed if Ireland wants to keep its name for good-quality beef. If customers from abroad come looking for quality beef and we can’t give it, they’ll go looking somewhere else.”
Christy can draw on over 30 years’ farming experience to back up his arguments for a new approach.
“I was born into the farm,” he says. “I was the youngest of six. My father died when I was a year old. The land was set for a while until we got going, but we gradually took it back. I bought my first calf when I was six, a Charolais, and built the herd from that. I got into suckling and began to buy pedigree cattle.
“I liked the Charolais breed. They had a good weight to them; you could say that they weighed and paid. I bought a pedigree Charolais bull in the early 1990s. I bred commercial cattle and won a lot of prizes for big groups of calves.”
Christy was picked to host the Charolais World Technical Congress in 2019, and he has won male and female champion awards at the National Show in Tullamore.
Neither Christy nor his wife Marguerite has an off-farm job, so they are dependent on the farm at Knockmahon, Castlewarren to make a living and raise their three daughters Collette (11), Cynthia (10) and Christine (5).
Marguerite had another job before the kids were born, but Christy has always been a full-time farmer.
“I’ve never got a handy pound and I doubt I ever will,” he laughs. “I did training courses with Teagasc back in the ’90s and went full-time farming then.
“People say I’m mad for not going dairy farming. But I had a lot of money invested in stock and have a lot of customers built up for weanlings over the years.
“There are a lot of farmers with part-time jobs that are producing top-quality cattle so they shouldn’t need them (off-farm jobs), but they aren’t getting paid for their product.
“Someone with 100 acres should be able to survive and make a living out of their farm if they were properly paid. This would free up a job for someone else and create more employment in rural Ireland.”
Christy learned the rudiments of farming “from older men and going to the mart as a young lad. It’s either something you have, or you don’t.
“The mart provides a great education for being able to identify good cattle. It’s the school of hard knocks, I think it’s better than any college. I owe a lot to those men. They were prepared to bring me on and share information.”
And while he agrees that online marts will have a role to play in the future, he is worried that if traditional marts are lost, farmers won’t be able to pass their knowledge on to the next generation.
“There will be an awful lot lost because younger sellers won’t be meeting more experienced mart goers. Some real good cattle farmers have generations of knowledge, so that needs to be passed on.
“The quality of cattle will suffer because there are 50 years of breeding knowledge that will be lost. It would be a shame to let it go.”
Christy also maintains that “a lot of people are too focused on breeding for stars. Stars are meant to be used as a guide. They aren’t gospel. A farmer shouldn’t buy an animal without a visual assessment.
“Stars won’t show an animal’s longevity, how their feet are, how long its mother lived. If you pick off stars without a visual assessment you can just end up with a pig in a poke.”
Christy’s land is a mixture of wet and dry ground, all of which is within a mile of his yard, which he says makes it easier to manage.
“The wet ground is growing very well, but growth has slowed right down on the dry ground,” he says.
He also bought land bordering him which he hopes will enable him to expand in the future.
Christy built his farmyard up from scratch over time. He has enough cubicles, straw bed sheds and slatted sheds to accommodate 170 cows over the winter.
“I have 100 commercial cows and 40 pedigrees but I’d hope to expand further in the future,” he says.
And while Christy’s main enterprise will always be cattle, he also has 240 spring lambing ewes.
“They work well with the cows, they keep the grass nice and tidy and give good-quality silage,” he says.
“They also allow us to have good cash-flow and money at different times of the year.”
The plan drawn up by a group of suckler farmers from across Ireland and backed by the Irish Charolais Cattle Society seeks to ensure Irish beef production is carbon neutral by 2030.
It seeks to classify farms that meet the carbon neutral level with a rated energy level and provide them with a distinguishable green tag to ensure they are paid a higher subsidy for their cattle.
Some of the main points included in the plan are:
■ Creation of carbon neutral farms through adjusted stocking rate, feed and fertiliser use, plus planting of trees, shrubs and special grasses and improved soil fertility.
■ A premium subsidy to be paid on more efficient cows which would be "A-rated", whereby they would calve every 380 days for three years, be 100pc beef bred, and their calves would gain 1.3kg/day.
■ Improve water quality through less slurry and NPK fertiliser use.
■ Reduce ammonia levels through use of environmentally friendly fertilisers as well as varied grass and clover.
■ Improve animal welfare.
■ Protect family farm income and create jobs in rural Ireland.
The plan proposes that the Department roll out a voluntary three-year pilot scheme for interested farmers so it could be trialled initially before it is rolled out on a national basis.
A spokesperson for the plan said that if suckler farmers were paid higher subsidies for their on-farm performance -ie, higher performers paid more, lower performers paid less - the scheme would almost become self-policing.
"This is a major step forward for the Irish suckler industry," said the spokesman.
"It will need a lot of help the Department of Agriculture and farm bodies. Our plan is exactly what Europe are asking us to do with the agricultural sector.
"We see the dairy industry has expanded and produced what the market wants so we feel that its our time to react and respond to what the market wants.
"We're looking to produce a healthy product that's free from antibiotics and is reared as naturally as possible.
"Our plan also is looking to bring our farms to a carbon neutral level and to improve them to an A rated level.
"The building industry was able to make housing more sustainable and environmentally friendly through the SEAI scheme with proper funding and information so we're looking for the same with farming."