QPS mistrust a result of poor information

John Heney

They say that patience is a virtue; well, it certainly helped me this year when it came to finishing my grass-fed Friesian cattle. An extra five or six weeks on grass has resulted in a good rise in fat scores and a measurable improvement in grades.

The only problem was that while I was busy getting that extra bit of finish on my cattle, the meat plants, with the co-ordination of a bunch of well-rehearsed line-dancers, were equally busy dropping the price they paid for cattle. The really worrying thing is that, because of the lack of any real competition in the market, they could probably have dropped the price even more if they wished.

On the positive side, the extra space provided by the sale of my first cattle six weeks ago, combined with the great grass growth this autumn, provided me with a good supply of grass to finish my remaining stock, as well as allowing a second cut of much-needed silage.

Like thousands of my fellow farmers, I made the annual pilgrimage to the Ploughing Championships held this year in Athy. In spite of the now familiar mud, it turned out to be an interesting day. One issue, which generated a great deal of debate at the Ploughing this year, was the Quality Payment System (QPS). Among farmers, it has once again exposed a deep and ongoing mistrust of the meat plants. Many farmers simply see the grid as a way to reduce the price that meat plants pay for cattle.

A second and equally serious aspect of the QPS debate is that many see the problems associated with mechanical grading, and the QPS grid as one and the same thing. In fact, these are two completely separate issues and must be treated as such.

I firmly believe that most of the confusion surrounding the QPS has been generated by a serious lack of information being made available to beef farmers. When it was introduced at the end of last year, neither the Department of Agriculture, nor the meat plants or any of the farming organisations bothered to write to beef farmers to explain the changes.

I was reminded of this last week when I received a kill sheet and payment docket for a load of cattle that I had just sold. In order to understand and analyse the myriad of different prices that I received for my cattle, I had to go rooting through a heap of old papers to find a copy of the grid, which I had luckily requested from a meat plant some months back.

I believe the factories should include a copy of the grid, showing all the various grades and current prices, with the Livestock Purchase Remittance documents sent to farmers.

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Anyway it's business as usual back on my farm. I have never seen the countryside look so green approaching October. The swallows, who were lining up in their hundreds on the electric fences last month, have now left and I notice that foxes have never been so plentiful, obviously helped by a bumper supply of unfortunate rabbits.

As I have already said, my cattle are now killing out much better and the margins that they are leaving, including the cattle I sold in early August, appear to compare favourably with reports I am receiving from people who feed better-quality cattle. Checking through my factory sheets for this time last year, I was pleased to see that plain cattle are actually making about 5-7c/kg (1.8-2.5p/lb) more this year and that's including the increased penalties applied by the QPS to O and P-grade stock. As a matter of interest, the actual increase in penalties for O and P-grade cattle comes to 4c and 4.8c/kg (1.4 and 1.7p/lb) respectively -- a long way short of some of the figures quoted to me at the Ploughing Championships.

I have already started to buy in stores for next year and it will probably come as no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am continuing to place my trust in the plain Friesian stores and the ability of my farm to finish them off grass.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary

Irish Independent

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