Derek Deane: 'Beef will go the way of beet unless somebody shouts stop'

Government leadership and an urgent plan of action are needed to address a crisis that has seen  the national suckler herd go into freefall, writes Derek Deane.

'The Irish dairy herd for all its expansion and success cannot be allowed to undermine the national suckler herd, which is currently dropping by 1,000 head per week'
'The Irish dairy herd for all its expansion and success cannot be allowed to undermine the national suckler herd, which is currently dropping by 1,000 head per week'

Derek Deane

As a beef farmer for the past 35 years, I am beginning to wonder if the game is up? We are in the midst of the worst crisis in beef since BSE, and the Minister for Agriculture and his officials are sleepwalking through it.

Factory prices have totally collapsed, markets have collapsed and we see deliberate moves by the Commission to undermine us further with the Mercosur deal. The reasons for the current crisis are as follows:

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The Commission is deliberately driving down prices by flooding our markets with imports from Third Countries. Last year, 280,000 tonnes of prime beef was imported from South America, which was equal to the total surplus within the EU markets, which in effect have collapsed the markets since June 2018.

Consumer confidence across Europe is at a low ebb between vegetarians, vegans, animal rights activists and the perception that reducing beef consumption is environmentally friendly.

The uncertainty of Brexit, which in my view cannot be dealt with until we know what happens. The current crisis is very different.

The expansion of the Irish dairy herd which has led to more than 400,000 dairy cows extra, which equates to an extra 8,000 poor quality cattle per week being presented at the factory gates.

John Donald and Derek Deane relaxing at the mart. Photo Roger Jones.
John Donald and Derek Deane relaxing at the mart. Photo Roger Jones.

Politicians and the Minister continually make statements to try and spin their way out of the crisis, but no-one is coming forward with practical solutions to manage it.

Listening to EU Commissioner Phil Hogan last Wednesday with Sean O'Rourke on Radio 1, he stated: "Irish beef farmers should not be concerned about Mercosur and be more worried about Brexit. We imported 280,000 tonnes into the EU last year from South America and none of this came into Ireland."

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Typical spin. Does he not realise that we are in a Single Market where Ireland exports nine out of every 10 cattle produced?

The Minister and his Department have constantly targeted the suckler herd to be reduced through subtle policy changes for example: the BDGP scheme, which is a good scheme, has been diluted so that the progressive, intensive producer is seriously disadvantaged, and in my case can only avail of €50 per cow even though it claims to offer €80 or more.

I now see that he is proposing to pay compensation from the €100m fund of €40 to a maximum of 40 suckler cows - again targeting the full-time commercial suckler farmer. If he believes the first 40 cows have lost money, surely the next 80 have lost money also?

The concept of importing fresh beef from South America into the European market and try and sell our fresh beef in markets like China and Japan is ridiculous.

If we have any concept of climate change or what needs to be done, surely this is not it? The beef market in Europe cannot survive or compete with ranchers of South America or so-called equivalent standards. If the current pig crisis in China has taught us anything, it must be that food security must remain vital in Europe.

What can be done?

The Commission must introduce an emergency intervention at a practical price to buy product off the flooded market, as was done in the BSE crisis.

A major promotion across Europe is also needed on the qualities and benefits of beef to encourage consumption.

The Irish dairy herd for all its expansion and success cannot be allowed to undermine the national suckler herd, which is currently dropping by 1,000 head per week. The dairy industry must look at all options which should include a 'Herod scheme' of its male calves to reduce its carbon footprint.

These animals are diluting and reducing the efficiency of the suckler beef herd which produces the most carbon efficient beef in the world. Trials have shown that beef-bred cattle are up to 50pc more efficient in feed conversion for beef production.

We have seen farmer frustration at all levels and with different groups representing different agendas taking to the streets. Last week, the Dáil voted to reject the Mercosur deal which gives political cover to the politicians.

We still have no plan to prevent the destruction of our beef herd as the Minister sits on his hands while hoping it all goes away.

He must assemble a small group to come up with a viable plan for the industry to be put forward within two months. We now need leadership and decisions to be made in everyone's interest

In conclusion, our beef industry in Europe has been supported for more than the past 100 years to maintain our food security, but is also now a vital part of rural Ireland and Europe in keeping agriculture viable and preventing land abandonment.

We cannot allow it to be destroyed by the whim of a Commission whose policies are designed to drive people out of business by collapsing the market.

We have seen the sugar industry destroyed right across Europe and the question is: who has benefited? We have a major fight on our hands now to prevent the same fate happening to our beef industry.

The truth is, you can only compete if the playing field is level.

Derek Deane farms in Co Carlow. He is a former IFA Livestock Committee chairman and was chairman of the Beef Advisory Group to the EU Commission 2001-2007

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