Declan O'Brien: Solving the suckler sector’s problems will require rational and imaginative thinking
The future of the suckler herd has been in the spotlight of late due to falling margins, a sharp drop in cow numbers, and collapsing morale among farmers.
Falling returns have left suckler farmers questioning whether there is a future in the enterprise. Some of the country’s leading weanling producers have already pulled pin and switched to dairying.
The biggest fall-off in cow numbers has been in the south and southeast — counties such as Cork, Waterford, Kilkenny and Carlow — where farm size and land quality made converting to milk production a viable option.
However, AIMS data shows that in the midlands and west the vast majority of cows continue to be beef animals, with most holdings keeping between 15 and 30 cows.
Weak beef prices have sapped farmer confidence this summer. However, the sector’s troubles are not exclusively internal. Poor beef returns have been blamed by some on increased numbers of poor quality stock from the expanding dairy herd.
Meanwhile, farmers fear that the ‘unprofitable’ suckler dam will be sacrificed to satisfy demands from the environmental lobby for a sizeable cut in overall cow numbers.
It is against this background that the IFA sought a €200/hd support payment for suckler cows.This is not a new concept. The suckler cow sector has benefited since the 1960s and 1970s from direct supports. In spite of this suckler cow numbers almost halved in the years after Ireland joined the EEC, dropping from 732,000 in 1974 to 424,000 in 1981 as dairying boomed.
Ironically, it was the EEC’s introduction of milk quotas in 1984, and the adoption of the coupled Suckler Cow Premium Scheme and Beef Cow Headage Scheme during the same period that sparked a recovery in the beef herd.
Cow numbers surged, hitting 730,000 by 1990 and a peak of over 1.2 million in 1997-98.
The CAP reforms of 2005 saw Ireland adopt full decoupling of payments on sucklers. However, the necessity for initiatives such as the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme of 2008-12, the current BDGP, and the recently announced Beef Environmental Efficiency Pilot (BEEP), all point to continuing income challenges in the suckler sector.
The Teagasc National Farm Survey confirms this. Suckler farms had the lowest average annual incomes in 2017 at €12,529. And, the average holding was subsidising its farming operation from direct payments to the tune of €2,000.
This is not sustainable in the long-term.
But is allowing the suckler herd to implode a better option?
A study undertaken by UCC economist Thia Hennessy for the IFA suggests not.
Ms Hennessy estimated that a 10pc contraction in the suckler cow herd would lead to a loss in beef output of €145m, and a loss of total output in the economy of €305m. In addition, over 2,000 jobs would be lost.
In contrast to the IFA, the ICSA is not as fixated on suckler cow numbers.
It describes the contention that Ireland has to have 1m suckler cows as “a myth” that suits the interests and agendas of factory owners and politicians.
The ICSA maintains that the critical measure of success for sucler farmers is farm profitability, and it points out that suckling was a more profitable enterprise when there were just 500,000 cows based primarily on small farms in the west.
The Irish suckler cow sector is at a critical juncture.
Cow numbers have already fallen to between 900,000 and 1,000,000 head; the average age of the 65,000 suckler farmers is the wrong side of 55; and there’s little money in the game.
On the plus side, sucklers suit the part-time farming operations where they are increasingly concentrated, they contribute to the local economy to a greater extent than forestry or store to beef enterprises, and they provide excellent seed stock for the wider beef sector.
Supporting the suckler herd or allowing it to gradually decline is a major socio-economic decision. It is not a simple choice between beef cows or trees.
Like most conundrums, it more nuanced than that.
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