Thousands of farmers exiting suckler sector

East-west divide opens up as suckler farmer numbers fall by up to 22pc in dairy strongholds

Department of Agriculture data shows that suckler cow numbers have fallen by 118,000 head in the five years from 2012 to 2017
Department of Agriculture data shows that suckler cow numbers have fallen by 118,000 head in the five years from 2012 to 2017

Declan O' Brien

The number of suckler farmers in the south and southeast has fallen by over 20pc since 2010, highlighting the scale of the exodus from beef. Nationally, 9,801 suckler farmers have exited the sector since 2010, a decline of almost 13pc.

 Department of Agriculture data also shows that suckler cow numbers have fallen by 118,000 head in the five years from 2012 to 2017, with the bulk of the reduction concentrated in the south.

The beef cow herd hit a high of 1.1 million head in 2012, but fell to 987,000 head by 2017 - an 11pc drop. The fall-off in beef cow numbers is not as sharp when viewed over the longer time frame of 2010 to 2017, with the drop in numbers totalling 76,000 head or 7.2pc.

The latest Department figures confirm that the south and southeast have seen the sharpest falls in beef cow numbers, with the reductions attributed to the high level of dairy conversions in the region.

Cork experienced the biggest fall, with the county's suckler herd dropping from 84,795 to 72,035 - a reduction of 12,760 head, or 15pc.

The suckler herd in Tipperary also dropped 15pc between 2010 and 2017, losing 10,300 head.

However, Waterford saw the biggest proportional loss of beef cows, with the county's herd contracting by a quarter or 6,500 head in the seven-year period. Cork, Tipperary, Waterford and ­Kilkenny accounted for 45pc of the national reduction in suckler cow numbers between 2010 and 2017, with the four counties losing almost 35,000 cows.

Farmers are also abandoning the enterprise in huge numbers in these counties, with the total number of suckler farmers in Cork back 1,300 or almost 20pc.

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Reductions of a similar scale are evident in Tipperary and Kilkenny, while there were 22pc fewer suckler farmers in Waterford in 2017 than in 2010.

Suckler cow numbers were far more stable in Connacht and the rest of the west. The number of beef cows fell by just 3.2pc in Connacht between 2010 and 2017, dropping almost 10,000 head from 290,000 to 280,000.

When Donegal, Clare and Kerry are added to the Connacht figures - to give a West of Ireland overview of the sector - the drop in cow numbers goes to almost 20,000 head or 4.3pc.

The beef cow herd has also remained relatively stable across the midlands, according to the Department figures, with suckler numbers actually increasing by around 1,000 head in Kildare.

However, industry sources point out that the figures up to the end of 2017 do not take account of sharp downturn in suckler farmer incomes this year, or the impact of this spring's fodder shortages and the summer drought.

Moreover, beef sector insiders point out that the Beef Data Genomics Programme (BDGP) scheme has tied in approximately 28,000 farmers and around 580,000 suckler cows until 2020 in order to qualify for their annual slice of the scheme's €50m payout.

The IFA has called for a payment of €200 per suckler cow to hold numbers.

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