Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Saturday 20 January 2018

Farmers threatening to exit the beef sector following collapse in demand

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Farmers dismayed by collapsing demand for their bulls are threatening to exit the beef sector.

With quotes of as little as 350c/kg for O grade Friesian bulls, the ICSA says that finishers are sick of the uncertainty around bull beef and are more likely to exit beef fattening than to switch to heifers or steers.

"The reality is that steer beef is just not efficient enough to cover the cost of a quality continental weanling. At the same time, bull beef at 16 months is too costly and fails to utilise our competitive advantage of grass," said the ICSA beef chairman Edmond Phelan.

Both the IFA and ICMSA have also been vocal on the issue in the last week.

However, there is little hope of any change in the returns for bull beef according to meat industry analysts.

"If anything, the meat industry's customers are becoming more demanding," said Bord Bia's beef specialist Joe Burke.

"The vast majority only want bulls that are under 16 months old with appropriate fat cover and conformation.

"In 2012, cattle supplies were very tight and the factories were a lot more forgiving. But 2013 saw all that change. The saleability of older bull beef is very limited," he added.

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A top executive with one of the big three beef buyers admitted that the goal-posts shifted after the horsemeat scandal broke in the first half of 2013. "Post-horse, there's no messing," he said.

Bull prices were largely on a par with steer and heifer prices throughout 2012. However, since then bulls have fallen by double the 15c drop that steer prices have taken.

R-grade bulls are making 380-390c/kg, while O-grade Friesian bulls are being quoted at little more than cow prices at 350-360c/kg.

"There has been a 30-40pc drop in bull supplies over the last three months, so there's no over-supply of bull beef. If anything, it's steers that have increased in numbers," said Joe Burke of Bord Bia.

"There's now a 20-30c/kg difference between steers and bulls which more than cancels out any advantage that bulls have with additional feed conversion efficiency."

THRIVING

Mr Burke maintained that there was very little room for grass in the systems required to produce under 16-month-old bulls.

"They have to be thriving the whole time so there is no store period and very limited scope for grazing," he said.

However, independent beef nutritionist, Gerry Giggins, claimed that farmers were achieving good returns from 16-month-old bull beef systems that incorporated grazing periods.

"Spring-born bull calves can be reared outdoors for the first summer and then grazed intensively for up to seven weeks the following spring.

"The perception that continental bred bulls cannot be finished profitably under 16 months of age continues to be prevalent among many beef finishers. But over the past few months prices for in-spec continental bulls have held firm. With the QPS being available there have been quite good returns on these animals," he said.

However, he did admit that farmers were receiving mixed messages from the factories over the last 12 months.

"Research into 20- and 22-month-old bull beef systems was wasteful and a red herring for farmers. The factories have also been guilty of not getting a clearer message out that there was little future for older bulls," he said.

The ICSA claim that unless markets can be found, the solution for many farmers will be to get out of beef and contract rear heifers for dairy farmers.

"The consequence of this will be to close down the quality suckler herd. Without viable markets for continental bulls, there is no subsidy imaginable that will compensate the suckler farmer," said Edmond Phelan.

The ICMSA slated both meat processors and Teagasc for advising farmers to look at bull beef production as an option for dairy cattle to overcome the negatives of the beef grid.

"Farmers duly took this advice and are now being penalised for taking this advice," claimed beef chairman Michael Guinan.

Meanwhile, the IFA's Henry Burns stated that a 16-month age limit for bulls simply would not work. "Two years ago, when numbers were very tight and live exports were strong, the factories pleaded with and promised farmers positive returns to keep Friesian bulls," he said.

"They are now turning their backs on these feeders. These animals would have been live exported as calves were it not for the promises and propaganda from the factories."

Irish Independent