Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Under siege - the threat to the suckler beef sector from dairy expansion

The suckler beef sector needs to develop new marketing strategies to survive the pressures from dairy expansion

Pic Roger Jones.
Pic Roger Jones.
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

An independent market for suckler-bred Irish beef could help secure the sector's future, leading suckler experts have said.

As dairy expansion continues to intensify in Munster and south Leinster, suckler farmers in these regions say the extra supply of dairy calves is placing additional pressure on factory prices for their stock.

Access to land and finance have also become issues for some suckler farmers trying to expand in strong dairy counties.

Although many suckler farmers have embraced dairy expansion by diversifying their holding into a dairy enterprise or by setting up calf-to-beef systems, there are serious concerns about the sector's sustainability.

With forecasts that dairying is set to expand in traditional tillage and drystock counties, as well as Connacht, experts say it is time to consider new measures and supports to protect the suckler sector's future.

"Dairying is expanding rapidly and as the older generation of farmers retire you probably will see more dairy farmers taking over that land and expanding their dairy herd," says Alan Dillon, Teagasc drystock specialist and Better Farm Beef programme manager.

"That is a threat to the suckler herd in the future so some kind of a support or a help will be needed to maintain its survival.

"The issues are probably more focused around the southern part of the country with farmers of larger suckler farms with good land base who have children or a successor coming on. Maybe they are looking to convert into dairying to make better margins."

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Mr Dillon believes developing a niche brand for suckler-bred beef reared from grass would be a positive step in tackling the emerging issue, with suckler calves reared at foot for up to eight or nine months.

Despite the different type of production systems, both dairy and suckler beef is marketed in the same way.

"If we could market suckler beef as a premium product and get a premium price that would definitely help," says Mr Dillon.

"I think definitely for a suckler cow to survive in the future they would need some kind of premium price or support that would justify keeping a cow, They are an expensive animal to keep on farms," he said.

Mr Dillon said suckler farmers can spend up to €500 or €600 a year on feed alone for their suckler cow.

"When you take all the costs into account, the margins are very small. The suckler animal takes up a lot of space in terms of sheds, they eat a lot of grass which means there is probably less opportunity to expand on some farms.

"There is a real threat to the sustainability in parts of the country where farmers are never going to be able to do anything else with their land except for suckler farming.

"If your farm is fragmented or if it is maybe poor quality land, suckler cows or sheep are probably all that is going to be able to survive on that land and that is probably going to continue into the future," he says.

Bord Bia beef specialist Mark Zieg said there is definitely "potential" for it and it has been under discussion with customers, including those on the continent. However, he cautioned it is not as globally accessible as the Aberdeen Angus or Hereford brands which have a "readymade identity". "They've developed a marketplace all over the world," said Mr Zieg, adding it need a stronger demand pull and differentiation to command the premium.

"We are in discussions and trying to get it out there but it doesn't lend itself to it. It is a part of the sector that needs a lift."

The latest ICBF figures show the suckler herd is continuing to decline as dairy cow and calf numbers surge ahead. Currently there are 1,004,334 beef-bred cows nationally - a drop of almost 80,000hd on the 2009 peak.

Teagasc has predicted that average dairy farm incomes could rise to between €75,000 and €80,000 in 2017 on the back of recovering milk prices, a static cost environment and higher milk production.

And while many suckler farmers are part-time and have off-farm employment, a staggering 51pc earned less than €10,000 from farming enterprises in 2016.

The income gap between suckler and dairy farmers can be challenging when accessing finance for farm expansion, says Mr Dillon.

"The top dairy farmer is making significant margins for the last five or six years, they probably have some cash built up and are showing profits and that is giving the banks confidence to invest in them to borrow money.

"We have beef farmers that are making a good margin currently, but the national average figures aren't tremendous at all. It would help significantly on better quality higher confirmation animals if you had a premium price for suckler beef but it's for industry to decide."

Suckler farmers agree with Mr Dillon that an independent suckler-bred beef brand would add another dimension to Ireland's "green image" on international markets. "On the marketing side maybe the time has come to differentiate between dairy-bred beef and suckler-bred beef," says suckler farmer and Farming Independent columnist Robin Talbot.

He said that a few more cent per kilo would make the sector viable. "When you think of all the boxes that suckler beef ticks, from welfare and environment and everything like that. I'm sure there are plenty of affluent consumers around the world that would be well capable and happy to pay that little bit extra for it.

"We have certain niche markets now with Angus, Hereford Prime and they are doing extremely well. They have shown the template of what can be done."

Tom Halpin of the Positive Suckler Farmers discussion group says marketing has become a hot topic at meetings.

"Farmers are dependent on Bord Bia to get markets. There is a very good story behind suckler beef reared at grass and it's one people would like to hear," he said.

Mr Halpin, who farms a 100 cow suckler herd in Robertstown, Co Meath said attracting new entrants is a big challenge.

"It's very expensive to put a suckler herd together with facilities and land; with milk you get a quicker, steadier return. If we don't get young people in, it's going to stall. We're not going to drive it forward," he added.

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