Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

Processors are treating farmers with disdain

Johnstown Castle
Johnstown Castle

John Heney

In spite of the changeable weather I still find myself under pressure with grass supply. Luckily I have sufficient grass to ensure that my cattle continue to thrive, but on the down side I still don't know when I'll be able to take a second cut of silage.

Of course, the one thing beef farmers are never sure of at this time of year is how well or otherwise their grass-fed cattle will kill-out.

The reality is you never really know until you are presented with the factory docket. Far too often the figures can be disappointing.

When the time comes to sell cattle, I find that it really helps to concentrate one's mind on what fattening cattle is all about. For me it is simply about finding the correct balance between maximising the amount of beef I produce while incurring the lowest possible input costs.

Once again I hope to finish my cattle on grass alone. This system may appear to be both simplistic and old fashioned, but grass is what grows on my farm, so that's what I use to produce beef. I look on growing grass on my farm as a bit like mining a natural resource.

The real challenge is to then convert this grass into cash as efficiently as possible.

I do this by buying store cattle sourced principally from local dairy herds, fatten them on grass and so turn this 'natural resource' into income.

As everyone knows there are very low returns from beef farming, so controlling costs/inputs is critical and for me this is what it is all about.

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However as every farm and indeed farmer is different, it goes without saying that what may work for me won't necessarily work on other farms.

I probably miss out by not feeding meal to some of my cattle; overall, though, I find that this system gives me the best results for the resources which are available to me.

The current very strong trade for store cattle highlights the inexplicable conundrum which is the Irish "beef-finishing sector".

Less than 12 months after blockading beef plants because of low prices, beef farmers now find themselves having to give away, not just the extra money which they are getting for their beef animals, but in many cases a good deal extra, when they go to the marts to replace them

This is quite baffling, but as any person involved in the cattle trade will tell you, it has happened many times before and I'm sure it will happen again.


On a positive note, I was greatly encouraged by recent results coming from ongoing Teagasc research relating to finishing steers from the dairy herd.

This research shows very promising results from more grass-centred production systems.

I had the privilege of visiting the Johnstown Castle research centre last autumn where I saw at first-hand how well some of these systems were working.

The Teagasc researchers involved must be complimented on their work as their research has been taking place in a challenging environment, where far more emphasis appears to be placed on increased inputs and output rather than focusing on improving farmers' incomes.

I must confess to a feeling of disbelief when I read the statements last week from the Meat Industry Ireland on behalf of the beef processing sector emphasising the importance of retaining the 30-month age requirement.

I believe that their stance highlights the disdain, with which I feel they are continuing to treat their farmer suppliers.

I am baffled that MMI cite in their statement the increased number of steers coming from our expanding dairy sector.

At farm level this expansion has resulted in calving dates become earlier and earlier each year.

This has resulted in an ever increasing number of steers now reaching 30 months in late June and early July.

These early finishing dates virtually eliminate the possibility of producing grass-finished beef at less than 30 months.

Ironically, grass-fed beef is one of the main features which the processors highlight in their marketing literature.

In a small survey which I did of all the local major supermarkets last year I failed to find little evidence of the less than 30 month limit being mentioned.

I therefore find it difficult to think it is anything other than another cynical ploy to reduce the price which they pay farmers in the already beleaguered beef sector.

John Heney farms at Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary


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