Colm O'Donnell: Why a viable suckler sector is vital for the survival of farming in the west

Cows grazing

Colm O'Donnell

The suckler cow sector is the main driver for both agriculture and the overall rural economy in many areas of the west and northwest.

Consequently, any assessment of this sector needs to consider its wider impact and cannot just focus on profitability in any given year.

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When assessing this wider impact we have to also recognise the land type and farming systems that predominates, as well as any impact on the environment.

The AIM Bovine Statistics Report from 2017 in relation to the percentage of calves born to beef and dairy dams probably best illustrates where suckler farming is strongest.

Leitrim at 91.6pc and Roscommon at 89.3pc have the highest birth rates from beef dams, with Cork at 16.7pc and Waterford at 21.4pc having the lowest. Other counties with a high percentages include Mayo at 81.7pc, Sligo at 78.8pc and Galway at 73.8pc.

When we consider these figures, especially in relation to Leitrim, we see how suckler cows are more commonplace where soils are heavier and farm sizes are smaller and often fragmented.

In staying with Leitrim we can also see how critically important to both the environment and the local economy our suckler cows are.

This is especially so when you consider the massive expansion of predominately Sitka spruce forestry in the county. Forestry expansion is negatively impacting on local communities and the environment, this is also becoming an issue in other counties.

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For suckler farming to survive the Government must:

Ensure farmers get a return from the market. This has to be a major priority in any future planning for the sector. Brexit will pose a major challenge which is why it is essential that those negotiating ensure tariff-free access to the UK market for our beef;

Promote the development of new and existing live export markets as a means of improving returns for farmers;

End the over-supply of beef markets. This has resulted in major price reductions for farmers. This over-supply is not being driven by suckler farmers but by milk suppliers who have significantly increased cow numbers. The ongoing expansion in the dairy herd cannot be allowed wreck our beef and suckler industry;

Deliver proper targeted supports for the suckler sector. This can help farmers, support the local economy, enhance our environment, and help in the battle against climate change.

In our budget submission, the INHFA sought €120m for the sector to be paid in the form of an extensive grazing measure using the template from the old sheep grassland scheme. This would pay a maximum of €4,000 per farmer and we believe in the short-term help prevent an exodus of suckler farmers from the sector.

Support for suckler farmers in the next CAP Programme is possible and we are currently working on proposals along the lines of our budget submission that will reward farmers through an extensive grazing measure.

This measure will focus on helping farmers with low nitrogen usage and ensure the vast majority of suckler farmers who are currently involved in extensive grazing systems are supported, while protecting against a cash windfall for large-scale intensive farmers and feed-lots.

Colm O'Donnell is president of the Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association (INHFA)

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