Farm Ireland

Saturday 17 March 2018

Why do cattle farmers accept low incomes year after year?

Millbawn Prizeman, the Connaught provincial trophy winner at Mohill Show with Conor Craig from Coolarty, Edgeworthstown, Co Longford. Photo: Edward Dudley
Millbawn Prizeman, the Connaught provincial trophy winner at Mohill Show with Conor Craig from Coolarty, Edgeworthstown, Co Longford. Photo: Edward Dudley

John Heney

August is a very important month on my farm. This is the time of the year when I sell my first load of cattle and I find that the returns from these cattle are a very good indicator of how my cattle are doing.

So far this year I am relieved with the results. The most significant figures are the fat scores which immediately show if the cattle are finished properly or not.

This year's fat scores were pretty much in line with the 2016 figures which were quite good.

Fat scores averaged out at just above 3= with some hitting 4- while carcase conformation grades also showed a slight improvement.

While carcase weights were slightly down on last year's first load, the better grades and price per kg helped to more than make up the difference.

Unfortunately, with the improved trade for store cattle it appears that reduced margins will be the order of the day when I have these cattle replaced.

In the fields, grass growth appears to have improved and I also managed to get my second cut silage done early in the month. The weather was quite unsettled at the time but the grass has bulked out well in the pit.

I am hoping that this extra silage will allow me to get some cattle into the shed a bit earlier and this should help in getting them out earlier next spring.

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Farm income survey

Another year, another Teagasc National Farm Survey is published and once again we find that the Irish cattle farmer's Groundhog Day income nightmare goes on and on.

I have often wondered why we as cattle farmers don't take a leaf from our good friends in the dairy sector.

If their incomes dropped to even double what we earn they would be marching on the streets and I don't believe that anyone would blame them.

In relation to this year's figures I found it very interesting, leaving aside subsidies and direct payments, to look at actual earned income on our larger commercial-type cattle farms.

The survey shows that on larger 125 acre to 250 acre cattle farms all the average farmer receives for his/her year's labour is just €3,000.

The survey proves that without EU subsidies and direct payments, cattle farming in Ireland would quickly grind to a halt as our banks and other financial institutions would immediately pull the plug on such loss-making enterprises.

But why do cattle farmers do it year after year? Why do we simply accept these perpetually low incomes as our lot? Why do we keep our heads down and just carry on, while at the same time being obliged to listen to mantras about increased output and production targets?

My sympathies to a great extent lie with the many research staff diligently working away on our research farms.

They produce excellent data on the economic viability and practical application of various production systems, but much of this research lies unused for whatever reason.

It appears that our political mandarins are only interested in increasing agricultural output irrespective of the extra costs involved and the negative effect this may have on many cattle farmers' incomes.

All this in spite of the fact that the National Farm Survey figures show that year after year these 'aspirational policies' are simply not working as incomes on cattle farms continue to stagnate.

Why aren't our policy-makers focussed instead on making as many farms as possible, especially those in the larger acreages, viable?

This will not be done by driving them farther into loss-making practices, but rather by using commonsense measures aimed at increasing efficiencies and reducing cost structure, even if this may involve some reduction in output.

When these farms have moved back into a break-even or profit-making situation, then is the time to see if output can be increased, but only if it results in an increase in cattle farmers' net-profit margins.

John Heney farms in Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

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