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Beef trade has turned the corner.

Beef trade has turned the corner.

BORD Bia, the body promoting Ireland’s multi-billion euro food and horticulture industry, has been operating without almost half of its usual board for almost four months

BORD Bia, the body promoting Ireland’s multi-billion euro food and horticulture industry, has been operating without almost half of its usual board for almost four months

Ray Doyle

Ray Doyle

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Beef trade has turned the corner.

No one can argue with the logic that efficient suckler farmers – producing quality E and U grade cattle – must get a significantly better price for their stock than poorer grade O and P grade animals from the dairy herd.

Indeed, some would argue that the basic quality payment system (QPS) grid payment structure has not rewarded the top grades enough to underpin quality suckler cow production.

However, since its introduction, the additional QPS bonus, which now stands at 12c/kg, has distorted the trade in cattle.

The percentage of factory-fit animals going to slaughter via a livestock mart has decreased significantly and now we are also seeing a decrease in the cull cow trade in marts.

This is directly due to the trade-inhibiting conditions of the QPS bonus system.

One of these conditions is that cattle that have moved holdings within the last 70 days before slaughter do not qualify for the QPS bonus.

Restriction

There is no scientifically-based animal welfare or meat quality rationale for the imposition of this movement restriction which has the effect of distorting free trade.

Why is such a restriction on free trade being facilitated?

The anti-trade conditions created by these movement restrictions needs to be urgently addressed.

The cost implication of this unjustified imposition is disastrous for farmers and marts alike. Are we to allow the meat industry and/or British retailers to restrict live cattle movements to a maximum of four movements?

The factories contend that the basis for this restriction is 'consumer demands', but this is simply not credible.

Consumers across Europe want their beef produced in a sustainable, welfare-friendly manner, at a fair price and well presented. Farmers also want that.

If, as the factories and supermarkets argue, the 'consumer' is genuinely concerned with animal movements, then why is the number of animal movements not clearly displayed on the consumer label?

The consumer, if made aware of traditional farming practices in Ireland would, I contend, be very accepting of animals moving holdings.

This is because, in an Irish farming context, the traditional pattern of stock movement – from smaller holdings in the west to larger holdings in the east – is driven by farm size.

It is also a fact that the welfare and level of nutrition for these animals increases as they move to the larger holdings in the east with the capacity to finish these store animals.

Our suspicions are that such movement restrictions have been introduced by the meat industry with only one goal in mind – to hinder competition and control prices.

At the very least, if this is not intentional, then let's see a revision of these conditions in the knowledge that the character of Irish livestock farming is different and more culturally unique than in other countries.

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At a time when many consumers are drawn to artisan or craft-produced foods, the grass-based heritage of beef farming in Ireland and the care and attention that animals receive should be cherished, not spurned.

Allowing free trade of cattle ensures the maximum amount of returns to the primary producer.

Is it wrong to allow this, or do we simply swallow the 'group think', bow to the multiples and the privately-owned meat factories and allow their profits to rise continually while the average suckler farmer is condemned to subsistence farming?

Irish meat factories have effectively removed competition for factory-fit animals from the livestock marts through the imposition of a minimum of 70 days' residency on the last farm before slaughter.

If these animals are presented at a mart, they are invariably ineligible for their QPS bonus, which now stands at 12c/kg or approximately €50 per animal.

This mechanism for reduced competition in the marketplace has effectively removed fat stock sales from livestock marts.

Live exports

Figures from Bord Bia estimate Ireland's beef exports to Britain at approximately 250,000t of carcass meat, some 88,000t of which goes onto retailers' shelves.

If these 88,000t came from live cattle exports, that would equate to approximately 275,000 cattle. However, at the moment there is no way that any proportion of this requirement will be met by Irish live exports to Britain, due to meat industry domination and control of supply channels in conjunction with retailers.

The question must also be asked: Why does the Irish meat industry seek to penalise the remaining 1,225,000 head of cattle equivalents, whose meat is exported to Continental Europe for retail purposes (and to Britain for sale through the foodservice and manufacturing sectors) where no stipulations exist for restrictions on the number of movements prior to slaughter?

I use the word penalty, not bonus, to describe the manner in which factories are applying QPS 'bonus' payments because any extra payments made to farmers must be paid for by other farmers.

The old saying "robbing Peter to pay Paul" would be more apt if changed to "robbing both Peter and Paul".

The meat factories allege that the British consumer demands to know where the animal was born, reared and slaughtered and to achieve this clarity they have now effectively locked cattle on the island of Ireland until they are fit for slaughter.

By doing so, factories can practically dictate the price and terms on offer.

The proof is seen in current poor prices and unacceptable delays in getting cattle slaughtered. Meanwhile, in Britain cattle are being bought at prices that are €200 per head more expensive than Irish cattle.

Prevented

Farmers in Northern Ireland are also effectively being prevented from the purchase of cattle from the Republic by the factories. That's because any farmer that presents a Southern Irish-born animal in a Northern Ireland meat plant will either be turned away or suffer a penalty of up to £150/hd. This is clearly anti-competitive behaviour.

The unique feature of cattle and beef farming on the island of Ireland is the grass-fed nature of our beef.

This is a feature which Bord Bia has always highlighted as being a unique selling point for Irish beef in all markets.

If this characteristic was highlighted by the ministers of agriculture, both North and South, at European level, then maybe we could brand Irish beef as being from the island of Ireland. If this was achieved, an animal born in Ballybunion or Ballymena would all be 'Irish Beef' and free trade could once again flourish.

Livestock farmers want a level playing field for their beef production.

Livestock marts want the same thing, and a resumption of the live export in store cattle to Northern Ireland and Britain.

Our objective is to try and ensure that the current beef round table will assist in resolving this current and very serious impasse.

Ray Doyle is the livestock and environmental services executive with ICOS


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