Farm Ireland

Saturday 25 November 2017

Focus on quantity over quality shows farmers are being exploited by QAS

Gerard Davis parades Baileys Elderado, which Mr Robert Graham bought for a top price of €17,000 at the Limousin Society sale at Roscrea Mart, Co Tipperary
Gerard Davis parades Baileys Elderado, which Mr Robert Graham bought for a top price of €17,000 at the Limousin Society sale at Roscrea Mart, Co Tipperary

John Heney

There is an old saying which says "never mind the quality -- feel the width". Apparently, it traces its origins back to cut-price tailors selling bulky, but inferior, clothing to the poor of London's back streets.

I feel that, in this day and age, advice encouraging Irish farmers to pursue quantity rather than quality should also be relegated to the history books.

Quantity is an easy concept to understand, but what exactly do we mean when we speak about quality? As far as beef production is concerned, it appears it has many different meanings.

First we have Bord Bia's Quality Assurance Scheme (QAS), which, by and large, adopts a constructive use of the word.

The QAS scheme provides positive assurance to consumers as to the standards under which Irish beef has been produced. In other words, it guarantees that proper production and food safety principles have been adhered to on the farm where the beef was produced.

Then there's the Quality Payment System (QPS). Aside from the fat issue, this is really all about quantity rather than quality.

It is designed to reward producers of beef-breed animals, which return a greater percentage of saleable meat than a comparable non-beef breed carcass. It ensures that a farmer gets fully paid for all the meat which his animals produce but it has little to do with the eating quality of beef.

There is only one real test of beef quality and that is when the consumer sits down to eat his/her beef dish. A well-finished, properly hung and nicely marbled carcass is vitally important.

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At the recent Ploughing Championships, the Bord Bia stand showed a selection of striploin steaks taken from different grade carcasses. This interesting display showed that meat from plain, but properly finished, animals compares favourably with meat from other breeds -- but the only difference being the physical appearance of the cuts. This display must surely have raised a few eyebrows among our farming experts.

Mindful of all of these factors, I find it extremely disappointing that meat processors refuse to pay the QAS bonus on all stock sourced from 'Quality Assured' farms. Worse still, by confining the bonus to selective grades, they are in fact turning the QAS into a stick with which to beat farmers with, rather than using it as a reward for better production methods.

It really does annoy me when I walk through supermarkets and see the 'Quality Assured' logo on all the meat displayed. We are not told which cuts received the 6c/kg bonus and which did not, neither is there anything to indicate exactly how the beef is produced. I believe it would be of great interest to the consumer to know if the meat they were buying had been fattened on natural, herb-rich pasture with all its proven health benefits or if it was produced from beef ration containing ingredients which many consumers have deep reservations about.

Once again, it appears that farmers are expected to maintain high standards with little reward. As I highlighted in a previous article, we are only receiving about three quarters of the comparable price we got for our cattle more than 20 years ago.

Anyway, back on my own farm, the recent fine weather has been a great help. Not only has it provided some much-needed late growth to help improve weights, but the good ground conditions have allowed me room to get in a good number of stores for next year.

I have often heard experienced cattlemen say that when cattle get a severe setback it can be virtually impossible to get them back properly thriving again.

Because of last year's wet summer, some of the Friesian stores that I bought last autumn were in a poor condition. The cold spring this year was a further blow and, while the cattle are showing reasonably good weight gains at the moment, last year's setback must take some responsibility for generally disappointing grades.

On the plus side, the store cattle on offer at the marts this autumn appear to be in much better condition and this should be a good help for next year. I have also started feeding rolled barley to some young Friesian cattle that I bought last May. The good autumn growth has helped them a lot and, with a bit of luck, I hope to get them away before Christmas at about 22 months of age.

Perhaps by then we will have seen a decent rise in the price of beef and I won't have to go searching out some latter-day entrepreneurial tailor in the back streets of London for my new winter jacket.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

Irish Independent