Farm Ireland

Monday 18 December 2017

Critical time to halt suckler fall

Ireland's suckler herd has been declining each year since its peak of 1,227,800 in 2005
Ireland's suckler herd has been declining each year since its peak of 1,227,800 in 2005
Caitriona Murphy

Caitriona Murphy

CSO figures show that the number of suckler cows in the country has been in decline since the national suckler herd peaked at 1,227,800 cows in 2005.

Suckler cow numbers fell by 12,400hd between 2005 and 2006 and a further 34,500hd the following year.

Between 2007 and 2008, the fall was reduced to just 1,000hd. However, the reduction in cow numbers resumed apace between 2008 and last year, with a drop of 24,500hd.

The suckler cow herd is expected to contract again between last year and this, although CSO figures are not yet available to confirm this.

The cull cow kill is up 20,000hd this year, while the number of non-dairy replacement heifers being bred is down.

There are several factors at play in the continuing decline of the suckler herd.

Chief among these is the profitability -- or lack of -- in beef production in Ireland.

The average cost of keeping a suckler cow is estimated at €400-500 a year. Although some farmers are able to secure top prices of close to €1,000 for their weanlings, they are not in the majority.

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The average price of a weanling -- across both bulls and heifers -- is closer to €400-500, effectively only covering the cost of keeping the cow in the herd.


In the face of such a lack of profitability, it is little wonder that farmers have decided to reduce suckler cow numbers. They reason that it would make more sense to reduce the number of cows they keep and hold on to more of their single farm payment (SFP), instead of using the SFP to subsidise non-profitable weanling production.

The availability of off-farm work has also affected cow numbers. With an average herd size nationally of less than 20 cows, a majority of suckler farmers are working off the farm, often in the building trade.

With that work now dried up, those part-time farmers have less money to subsidise cattle production.

Finally, the reduction in the Suckler Cow Welfare Scheme (SCWS) payment from €80/hd to €40/hd has also reduced the attraction of keeping sucklers.

So what can be done to prevent the ongoing herd decline?

ICSA suckler chairman Brendan McLoughlin says the ultimate solution lies in a higher beef price from the factories.

"Farmers are not being rewarded for producing top quality E-grade cattle," he says. "There is not enough competition at the ringside between factories and the shippers.

"At an average price of €400-500/hd for calves and a cow cost of around €500, the penny has dropped with farmers."

However, Mr McLoughlin is hopeful that the resumption of trade to North Africa will take lower grade cattle off the factory lines and result in higher prices for top quality E- and U- grade cattle.

"Factories have been using O, R and P-grade cattle to keep their customers supplied," he says. "If there is another market for those cattle, it will put a floor in prices for higher-grade animals."

Mr McLoughlin is also critical of the effect of reduced deadweight restrictions on top-grading cattle.


"A good U-grade animal needs to get to 420-450kg deadweight before it is finished correctly, so the 380kg limit is having a detrimental effect on those cattle," he claims.

IFA livestock chairman Michael Doran says there are several critical issues that need to be addressed to reverse the slide in suckler cow numbers.

"We need to have a beef price comparable to continental Europe -- the market we are selling into. That's a price of 320-350c/kg depending on the time of year," he says.

"Secondly, the SCWS payment needs to be reinstated at up to €80/hd. The Government allocated €250m for five years, but it is not spending near that level at the moment because cow numbers are down, so the minister has the scope to increase the rate per cow again."

Mr Doran insists that it is also critical that farmers are rewarded for good breeding.

"We are making progress on breeding through the ICBF but this needs to be accelerated. If you increase the quality of the calf produced every year, you increase the return per calf."

A gross margin target of €1,000/ha needs to be achieved by some farmers in the near future, he claims.

"Teagasc needs to improve its programme to improve technical efficiency and productivity at farm level. The new suckler unit at Grange is a strong start in the right direction," he adds.

Mr Doran says live exports are essential to creating higher prices and competition in the sector.

On a political level, the livestock chairman says Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith must recognise the major blow that cuts in REPS and Disadvantage Area schemes have dealt to incomes in the drystock sector. "Critical to maintaining the suckler herd will be 100pc defence of individual single farm payments in the CAP 2013 debate," he claims.

"Direct payments are absolutely essential to the suckler and drystock sector.

"All aspects will have to be looked at, including the possibility of coupled payments for suckler cows."

Irish Independent