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Independent.ie

Sunday 18 November 2018

Dairy expansion isn't the problem - the unfair and defective beef price grid is

More subsidies for sucklers won't compensate for the hammering they,re taking on price, argues ICMSA's Pat McCormack

President of ICMSA Pat McCormack on his Tipperary farm
President of ICMSA Pat McCormack on his Tipperary farm

A commentator recently wrote in the Farming Independent that the CAP promises a fair standard of living for all farmers - not just dairy farmers. I agree and have never said otherwise.

ICMSA takes its subtitle 'The Family Farm Organisation' seriously and this means that our starting point for any analysis is the attainment of a fair standard of living for all farmers.

CAP has demonstrably failed to deliver this and our politicians have, in turn, shamefully avoided addressing that first failure. I'm also certain that pitching the different farming sectors against each other in a fight over a dwindling pot serves no-one, except the EU and the politicians whose inaction and failure is thereby disguised.

Nor do I accept the idea that seems to be gaining ground that views dairy farming as a 'handy number'; like all farming, dairying is hard work and every cent earned is hard earned. It is very far from 'handy' or the 'white gold' of headlines.

We have seen articles about how dairy farmers are flooding the EU market with poor quality beef. Dairy beef production traditionally accounted for approximately 50pc of Irish production and this is growing since the abolition of quotas, as was predicted and expected.

Since abolition, farmers are making their choices in terms of enterprise and, for some, that choice is dairying. But is this not individuals exercising the freedom to farm that we all insisted upon?

Many dairy farmers produce excellent quality beef that meets market requirements but, like the suckler farmers, they are not getting paid enough for it. Anyone who really wants to understand the problems undermining the suckler sector would be well advised to start with the current grid.

From the first day it was unveiled, ICMSA said the grid was defective and unfair. Nine years of market changes later and the grid is even less fit-for-purpose than it was then. The mystery of who gets a quality assurance bonus and who doesn't illustrates perfectly why farmers have lost confidence in the grid.

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We've been calling for a review of the grid at every meeting of the Beef Forum since it was first convened, usually on our own, and we're happy to take any support we can get in having the desperately needed review carried out.

Dairy farmers are not the problem for suckler farming and they never were. The problem for suckler farming is the price being paid by meat processors.

When milk quotas were in place, exactly the same income pressures were there for sucklers, so quota abolition didn't trigger the pressure on suckler farming. In the interests of the flagship 'Cheap Food' policy, politicians have allowed the links further up the supply chain to dictate margins backwards to the farmer and forward to the consumer.

It's grossly unfair to the farmers - whether dairy, suckler, or anything else.

ICMSA will resist additional suckler supports funded by a linear cut to all farmers' Pillar I payments. The idea that everyone else - and in a year when farmer incomes will fall by over 50pc - should suffer a cut in their BPS to fund a €250 per head suckler payment is ridiculous and unfair.

With approximately 900,000 suckler cows in Ireland, such a proposal would cost €225m. If this is to be funded from Pillar 1, it would mean cutting all farmers' current payments from suckler, beef, sheep, dairy and tillage by over 17pc and this is before taking account of inflation.

No-one could countenance those cuts and bitter experience has shown us that even if such a scheme was introduced, it would be 'top heavy' with terms and conditions.

In addition, is it fair that a dairy farmer or tillage farmer or sheep farmer with a Pillar 1 payment of €10,000 would suffer a cut in their payment of €1,700 per annum to fund a suckler cow payment for a suckler farmer who may have a payment of over €50,000 per annum?

Very few people would think that that's fair.

We're past the point of un-costed 'calls' for this or that because we have arrived at what is known as a 'Zero-Sum Game': if someone gets more, someone else has to get less and people need to acknowledge that and tell us all, publicly, whose payments they want cut.

Pat McCormack is president of the ICMSA

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