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.