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It's great to be optimistic, but let's be realistic too

Hope springs eternal, and this spring with the expectation of further increases in the price of beef, there seems to be more hope around than usual. In fact, such is the current level of confidence, many farmers appear prepared to pay as much for stores as they got for their beef cattle last autumn.

Anybody involved in beef production will know that this is nothing new as there have been many years in the past when cattle have lost money. Beef farming is really not for the faint-hearted.

A friend correctly pointed out to me that even with the current rises in prices, people who fed store cattle over the winter won't have made much money from them either. The reality is that as production costs continue to rise, it is now impossible to produce beef in Ireland without someone in the production chain getting their fingers badly burned and losing money.

So how is all this confidence justified? According to Food Harvest 2020, our beef sector can look forward to an 'increase of 20pc in value of output' using 'smart' and 'green' production systems. Unfortunately we have heard it all before.

It's now more than 20 years since growth promoters were quite rightly banned. At that time farmers were assured that, based on increased consumer demand, an increase in the price for our more naturally produced product would more than offset any loss in output. But what happened? Beef prices started to fall and have continued to fall ever since!

This report somewhat tediously repeats the adjective 'smart' no less than 26 times but still appears unable to differentiate between such basic concepts as 'natural food' and 'functional food'.

Furthermore, it contains only superficial acknowledgment of the current global economic turmoil caused by the rapidly rising costs of energy which is an indispensable ingredient in modern food production systems. I also didn't find the blatant bias in favour of one particular farm advisory services to the exclusion of many of our finest agricultural experts very reassuring either.

Some people may feel that I'm being unreasonable in my comments about this report. But a body promoting strategies, which by its own admission won't even get prices back up to where they were 20 years ago does little to inspire confidence. With respect, I would suggest that a far more objective picture of where we are going in agriculture could be gained by consulting some excellent independent publications currently available.

One such publication, So Shall We Reap, by zoologist Colin Tudge, takes a logical and rational look at the mounting difficulties being faced by intensive industrialised food production systems and sets out how he sees future generations being fed. Another book, Beyond Growth, written by ex-World Bank economist Herman Daly, should also be of interest. Daly questions the sustainability of our current model of exponential economic growth and makes many sensible suggestions in relation to viable alternative models.

There is also huge concern at the moment amongst beef farmers in relation to the ongoing Mercosur negotiations. It is amazing that the key EU body specifically charged with dealing with all external trade negotiations, the Article 133 Committee set up under Article 133 of the EU Treaty, remains virtually invisible.

This powerful EU committee plays a key role in shaping the EU's external trade policy and generally guides the Commission's decisions.

Apparently it is open to many influences including submissions from the EU's industrialised sector and because of commercial confidentiality, it is not required to keep minutes.

From an Irish point of view, this is a most unfortunate situation. In spite of increased powers resulting from the passing of the Lisbon Treaty, it appears that the EU Parliament is unable to prevent our beef sector being bartered away to facilitate the interests of the EU manufacturing industry.

Meanwhile, back on the farm the first of my cattle went out to grass on March 25. This was a bit later than I had hoped, but last year's late spring has made me a lot more cautious. Overall, I'm happy enough with how they did over the winter but as usual any cattle that were in poor condition going into the shed, remained poor coming out. I find that this is generally the case with Friesian store cattle fed on silage alone.

As spring arrives, it's great to see nature performing her annual miracle, re-awakening after one of the hardest winters on record. While working down the fields during the recent spell of summer-like weather it struck me that there can be few better places on earth to be at this time of year than out on a farm. Is it any wonder that in spite of everything we still remain such a hopeful lot?

John Heney farms at Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming