Farm Ireland

Monday 23 April 2018

One size fits all farming advice not ideal


John Heney

As the dark evenings close in, most of my finished cattle have been sold and a clearer picture is emerging as to how things have gone this year. This year's good growth conditions have resulted in an increase in carcase weights of my mostly Friesian cattle and fat scores have also improved.

However grades have been disappointing. While the number of Ps are reduced, they are still far too high for my liking. I had hoped that the improved fat score this year would have lifted more of them into Os. However, the one redeeming factor is that the Ps are predominantly P+ and, with the grid system, the difference between an O- and P+ is in fact very little.

This situation is not going to improve in the foreseeable future as it seems that the ongoing advice to the dairy sector takes no account of the value of its store cattle by-product. Indeed, it appears that the exact opposite seems to be the case with the introduction of more exotic dairy cross breeds.

This is difficult to understand as there is so much emphasis currently being placed, by everyone including our minister, on the tremendous value of beef exports to the Irish economy.


The reality on the ground is that, in spite of all this hype and rhetoric, the origin and quality of up to half of our current beef kill is being ignored.

While the trading margin is of utmost importance, I believe that, from an income point of view, an equally important issue is the cost of production.

Anyone looking at the current income figures for cattle farmers in this year's Teagasc National Farm Survey (NFS) could only be shocked and dismayed. These figures show an industry in absolute turmoil, with the average income at a disastrous €268/ha. What this means is that you would need a 240ac farm to earn just €26,000.

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What's worse, we are told that most cattle farmers are now totally reliant on the 'life-support' of the Single Farm Payment, not alone to live, but also to pay much of their farm costs.

I was puzzled by what lay behind these disturbing figures so I decided to contact the Teagasc team who compiled them to find out if they could throw some light on this subject.

The people I spoke to were most helpful. They pointed out to me that it was costs, especially feed costs, that were the main issue curtailing incomes in the drystock sector. Because of my location in the Golden Vale, they said I was one of the lucky ones, being able to finish cattle off grass without having to use expensive feedstuffs.


They went on to place huge emphasis on the fact that the bottom line on any farm is profitability; nothing else really matters. Once a cattle farmer has used grass to full advantage, they should sit down and work out if extra investment in feed or machinery will pay or not. If the extra investment doesn't return a profit, the advice is just don't do it!

It was also explained to me that there is no such thing as an average farm. To me this means that the one size fits all type of farm advice, which regrettably we are all too used to being bombarded with, will inevitably fail.

So where do we go from here? The output targets set for the beef sector by Food Harvest 2020 are indeed very commendable, but some practical form of help and support is urgently needed down at farm level. It's difficult to see much point in setting optimistic output targets for an industry whose foundations, according to the Teagasc NFS figures, are in a state of total collapse.

But I believe that there is hope. We never hear about them, but if you look around at any mart you will see a substantial cohort of highly successful beef finishers.

I remember meeting a senior agricultural official from India at an international conference I attended a number of years ago. We had a very interesting discussion about farming in our respective countries and I will always remember him telling me that when he sends his advisers out to farms in India, he tells them to "listen to the farmers". He argued that these are the people who understand their own farms and possess a huge wealth of information on how best to manage them.

Perhaps it might be a good idea if a similar type approach was adopted here in Ireland. It could hardly make things any worse than they are at the moment.

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

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