John Heney: We need a serious debate on the future of Irish beef farming


Berry happy: The Thrush enjoying his winter feed in seasonal style
Berry happy: The Thrush enjoying his winter feed in seasonal style

John Heney

For a number of years with the arrival of winter, a large brown thrush takes possession of a berry-laden Cotoneaster shrub which grows outside our kitchen window.

As I eat my breakfast each morning I watch as he zealously guards his bountiful winter hoard ready to rebuff any attempt by numerous blackbirds to share in it.

The thrush's arrival also indicates that Christmas is not far away, so with the year quickly drawing to a close perhaps it's a good time to have a look back at 2018.

It is unlikely that any of us will forget the nightmare which was 2018. However, even as the legacy of the dreadful weather continues to manifest itself in the form of less-than-abundant supplies of silage, the recent extremely mild autumn has gone a long way to alleviated some of the damage already done.

To me the most unusual thing about the autumn grass was its amazing feed value. Cattle really did thrive very well on it. We have often heard it said the late autumn grass was of little use and that it just "ran through the cattle"; this year however we saw cattle continue to thrive and put on weight - something which was never so badly needed and in my own case it certainly was a great help.

I finished selling the last of my cattle some weeks ago so I'd like to take the opportunity to explain how things worked out in the end.

The trend set by my first load of beef sold in August more or less continued; overall fat scores were only slightly down which I was very pleased with considering the year, however, on the other hand, grades were disappointing with a rise of about 30pc in P grades.

Overall carcase weights were back about 6kg per head which combined with a drop of about 9c/kg dead weight (resulting from later sale dates and lower grades) saw a decrease of about €50 per head on last year's prices.

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When this is combined with the fact that these cattle have cost about €50 more to purchase than the previous year's cattle, a drop of about €100 per head would appear to be the outcome.

These disappointing figures appear to support the current disquiet being expressed by thousands of Irish beef farmers right across the country in relation to the future of our industry.

Income research figures continue to highlight the very low margins and in many cases the non-viability of producing beef in Ireland at current production cost levels and factory prices.

While we probably have the best farming researchers and research facilities in the world, I believe that much of this research is being cynically used by our politicians and policymakers to brainwash beef farmers into making huge investment involving totally unsustainable indebtedness in the vain hope of increased incomes.

For instance, no one would suggest that a swimmer who was vainly suggesting to keep his head above water should have extra weights placed on his shoulders so that he might become a stronger swimmer and hopefully save himself. That would be a total nonsense.

Unfortunately, it appears that a similar type of policy of placing huge amounts of indebtedness on the shoulders of Irish beef farmers is the only "remedy" our policy-makers can currently come up with.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that we need a total rethink of our beef sector. We should not forget that long before the "green revolution" with its unfortunate reliance on chemical fertilisers and sprays, Ireland with its great growing climate and rich soils was a producer and exporter of prime beef.

It appears that practical modern advances have allowed some more prudent beef farmers to increase their farm efficiency without huge investment and survive quite well in the current climate. However, you will never see these farmers make the headlines as they wisely choose to ignore our much hyped government policies.

Grass management

While little can be done about the cost of proper housing, improved grass management is vital. Thankfully, this doesn't always have to mean investing in an expensive reseeding programme with a subsequent increased in fertiliser use and a dramatic rise in borrowings to finance the increased stock numbers required; not forgetting of course the extra accommodation needed.

Some may say that bigger is always better, however it's certainly not better if it simply means losing more money on more cattle.

Promoting high input, high cost policies in such a low margin and uncertain sector can only lead to an inevitable "end solution" where large scale beef units such as are currently being used or rented by many of our wealthy beef processors are all we will be left with.

Suggestions, however, by some commentators that the real values of these feedlots to their owners lies not in their ability to produce beef efficiently but in their ability to exert control over the market price of cattle, are deeply worrying.

This ultimately begs the question as to what happens when all our traditional beef farmers have been forced out of business, where do the processors then go for their cheap cattle?

We really do need a serious debate on the future of beef farming in Ireland. Perhaps the newly formed "Beef Plan Group" has already started this debate.

Finally, on a lighter note, I would like to say a big thank-you to all our readers for your continued support and wish you a peaceful Christmas and a Happy New Year.

John Heney farms in Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming

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