Darragh McCullough: It's time to park our emotions and debunk the myths about suckler farming

Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough eats, sleeps and lives farming. Photo: David Conachy
Darragh McCullough on his farm in Stamullen, Co Meath. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

The campaign to secure €200 per cow for suckler farmers ahead of this month's Budget is bonkers, and Minister Creed is dead right to be holding firm against it.

But I'm beginning to wonder how much longer he can hold out.

It's claimed that the catchy SOS (Save Our Sucklers) campaign has garnered 44,000 farmer signatures - which if you take the Department of Agriculture Basic Payment figures would suggest that less than a third of farmers in the country support this.

Which of course means that there's a clear majority of 66pc who haven't signed the petition.

Before anyone flies off the handle accusing me of pitching farmer against farmer, let's look at a few facts.

There are approximately 900,000 suckler cows in Ireland so to fund this measure would cost approximately €180m.

That €180m isn't hiding under some benevolent uncle's mattress. It has to come out of the existing CAP pot that is divided among Irish farmers. It would effectively redistribute 10pc of CAP payments to suckler farmers.

There is no doubt in my mind that the existing distribution of CAP money among farmers is unfair.

Also Read

A system that is based on historical payments - ie, what farmers were doing nearly two decades ago - often has little or no relevance to either the needs of farmers today or their efforts to generate such payments.

The current system where landowners qualify for payments of over €100,000 simply by mowing the grass once or twice a year is plainly daft.

However, the last time (or indeed any-time) the EU mooted the idea of redistributing payments by flattening them or basing disadvantaged area payments on stricter criteria, the hue and cry and flat resistance from the IFA and almost everybody else was striking.

So why does redistribution of payments in favour of suckler farmers get a special dispensation?

There is a line spouted that suckler farming is a cornerstone of Irish agriculture.

But anyone who knows their history knows that no farming system remains frozen in time forever. In the same way that the shorthorn was the bedrock of the dairy herd 100 years ago, the modern suckler cow is very different to the beef cow of times gone by and likely to be entirely different in years to come.

The harsh economic realities have shown that every year since 2000, cattle farmers have made a loss on their enterprise and only have enough cash to put the cows back in calf year after year because they have the EU farm payments propping up the enterprise.

In the background, an off-farm income is often keeping the family going.

I was always struck by the reflections of highly skilled suckler farmers who converted to dairying when prices crashed in 2009.

While analysis suggested it was the worst year ever for dairy returns, the new converts confessed to me that they had still made more money from dairying that year than any year they had in suckler farming.

Note also the growing line of ex-IFA presidents and beef chairmen who have quietly switched to milking cows in the last few years.

These were the stoutest defenders of suckler farming in their day, but rather than cursing the darkness of non-performing returns, they've followed the money trail into dairying.

Granted, not all suckler farms will be able to convert to dairying due to land type and the scale of their operations. But all suckler farmers have sheds, calving facilities, calf sheds and the skills that dairy farmers are belatedly realising they need to tap into.

There are already discussion groups in the west that have been set up to connect dairy farmers needing help to take the pressure off their inadequate facilities, fodder supplies and their daily routines so they don't run themselves into the ground.

So there are alternatives out there.

And that's before anyone mentions a word about forestry, which I still believe has untapped potential both east and west of the Shannon.

There's no point ignoring the environmental angle either. It goes hand in hand with the profit problem in suckling.

In the same way that there's very little economic output from a suckler cow while she's pregnant (in contrast to the dairy cow that is paying her way through the milk she's pumping out), there's very little to justify her emissions either.

By the way, this is not a piece looking for the end to beef farming in Ireland. While there are cows in Ireland, there'll be beef in Ireland. But the most profitable beef is more likely to be a by-product from the dairy herd.

It's a pity that there's no leadership to prevent this becoming a dairy versus beef debate rather than a discussion on the best way to ensure a real economic return for the biggest number of farmers possible.

I can't finish without pointing to the biggest flaw in the concept of increasing the subsidisation of the beef sector. If suckler farmers are unable to make a living from the animals they produce, why aren't the fabulously wealthy individuals who buy all the beef produced here able to pay any extra?

Instead, we are proposing to simply increase the tax-payers' subsidisation of the beef barons' multi-billion industry. And then we wonder why the economics of farming don't stack up?

It's time for farmers to take a leaf out of those former IFA leaders' books.

Otherwise they'll find themselves dependent on a quasi-welfare system that will be entirely subject to the whims of a political and business elite.

Indo Farming