Darragh McCullough: 'We need farm leaders brave enough to admit that the beef sector needs a total transformation'

Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Darragh McCullough pictured on his farm in Stamullen, Co. Meath. Picture credit; Damien Eagers / INM
Facing the problem: Many suckler farmers slog on because they are led to believe there is no alternative
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Scapegoats and sacrificial lambs are dominating farming utterances in the wake of the Climate Change Advisory Council's report. It may be a bit confusing for the non-farming types out there to realise that it's actually all about the bovines.

It would be far better if everyone took a deep breath and eased off the finger-pointing and blame-gaming.

Granted, the beef sector is hurtling into a confluence of challenges that looks set to trump all previous 'crises'.

You could almost set your watch to the timing for the annual beef crisis over the last couple of decades. Generally it was only in October or November when a surge in cattle coming off grass dragged down prices in the beef plants.

This year it feels different. For a start it's still only July, when farmers are usually happily distracted in the fields with hay, straw and grain harvests.

All the big threats to the sector also seem to be crystallising simultaneously. Not only is our biggest and most valuable market in the UK looking to bail out of the EU and do deals with all and sundry for cheap imports, the EU's trade deal with Mercosur looks set to open the door to a massive surge in half-price Brazilian steaks landing into our remaining high-price markets on the Continent.

Half-page ads in our national newspapers claiming that "nothing good happens in slaughterhouses" is a constant reminder to beef producers that their traditional customers are dialling back their meat consumption for a variety of reasons, covering everything from health to ethics.

The fact that the biggest meat companies in the world are pouring millions into developing synthetic meat options doesn't exactly inspire confidence either.

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And then there's that environmental question about ruminants' impact on climate change.

Beef farmers find it bewildering that their age-old craft of rearing cattle should be singled out as the problem when the ever-increasing emissions from air travel appear to get off scot-free.

But I'm not confident that people offered a choice between a limit on their beef intake versus a cap on their air-miles would automatically go for the latter.

This is not to say that there should not be a carbon tax on aviation fuel. But you can be sure that by the time international agreements are complete on taxing aviation fuel, farmers will be faced with similar taxes on their polluting activities.

So no matter what way you skin the cat (to add to your goat and lamb), it comes back to the money.

The scandalous statistic that beef farmers spend an average of 14pc of their Single Farm Payment on subsidising their cattle proves that the sector makes no sense for the majority.

In fairness to beef farmers, they haven't been well guided for life beyond beef. Far too much time has been invested in campaigns, programmes and schemes championing suckler farming as a viable enterprise.

If you want proof that this is a wishful dream, check out the latest results from Farmers Journal's suckler demonstration farm in Tullamore.

Despite utilising the best technical expertise available on a superb 200ac farm, this unit recorded a loss of nearly €72,000 last year.

No enterprise that loses on this scale can claim to be the backbone of rural Ireland. Is it any wonder that the Climate Council's report last week targeted the suckler herd as a sensible place to start cutting back on the bovine emissions that account for 60pc of agricultural emissions and 19pc of our national total?

The report calls out suckler schemes like BEEPS as 'headage schemes' that are encouraging farmers to stick with an enterprise that is fundamentally unprofitable.

The elephant in the room (with the goat, lamb and cat) is what suckler farmers should turn their hands to.

But it takes a real crisis to generate once-in-a-generation opportunities. We need farm leaders brave enough to admit that the emperor has had no clothes for a long time, and really engage with the transformation required in the Irish suckler sector.

Suckler farmers are being encouraged to resist the changes when the truth is that almost anything - including doing nothing - would be more profitable than what they currently do.

Instead they continue to effectively write cheques for some who have made billions on the back of Ireland's beef sector.

Suckler farmers slog on because they are led to believe there is no alternative.

That's a shameful legacy for today's ag leaders to leave behind them.

Indo Farming

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