Report playing 'Russian roulette' with our future

John Heney

Isn't it great that this winter will go down in the history books for all the right reasons? Little did we think this time last year, as we struggled to recover from a record-breaking cold spell, that just 12 months later we would be looking at a countryside covered by a rich coat of green grass.

All we must hope for now is a spell of dry weather that will allow all this early grass to be fully utilised. Unfortunately, things don't always work out as we would like.

I remember one April, a number of years ago, when I let my cattle out onto fresh paddocks which had a beautiful cover of grass, only to see some of these paddocks literally turn brown overnight as a result of severe poaching resulting from an extended period of very wet weather.

This recent spell of weather has also helped greatly in the spreading of slurry. Combined with a few days of soft rain, the response to the slurry has been phenomenal. Fields that were grazed up until Christmas are now looking as though they have not been grazed since last October.

I have also spread some lime on a section of my farm where I felt the cattle hadn't done so well last year. I am hoping that this will help to prevent a repeat of the disappointment I experienced with the final load of beef I sold last autumn.

I recently attended a conference run by the Agricultural Science and the Agricultural Consultants' associations. How refreshing it was to hear prominent economist Colm McCarthy spell out in simple language the situation which the country now finds itself in.

According to newspaper reports, this refreshing form of frankness was once again in evidence at a follow-up ASA/ACA conference held in Carrick-On- Shannon. This time the speaker was a member of the meat processing sector.

It's unbelievable that it takes some plain talking from a person involved in the processing sector to warn us of the dangers of policies currently being promoted by some State agencies. To emphasise the severity of the problem, his warning about lack of outlets for bull beef has since been repeated by a prominent Bord Bia spokesperson who worryingly spoke of having already received complaints from foreign customers about Irish bull beef.

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These startling revelations prompted me to take a closer look at the beef section of the much vaunted Food Harvest 2020 Report, to see exactly what it said about the future of our industry. I was deeply concerned at what I saw.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the people responsible for compiling this section had a very poor idea of how the beef sector works. For instance, promoting an increase in the production of an intensively produced beef product, without first investigating and quantifying potential dangers for existing lucrative markets, looks like the work of people with either incomplete information or very poor judgement.

The report identifies the key challenges facing the sector as maintaining Irish beef's "premium position in the EU market", but deliberately ignores the reality that the success of our beef industry is built on Ireland's unique "competitive advantage" in having a natural grass-based production system based on ideal climatic conditions and excellent soil quality.

In fact, as a producer of traditional grass-fed beef, it seemed to me that the report's chief interest in grass-fed beef is simply to use it as a smokescreen for camouflaging a more industrialised form of beef production which is hugely reliant on expensive imported feed.

If this is the case, these people are playing Russian roulette with my future and the future of a lot of other farmers as well.

In relation to low incomes in the beef sector, the report incorrectly appears to equate an increase in farm output with an increase in farm income. The reality is that research shows that the high cost of bought-in feedstuffs remains the main reason for low incomes in the sector.

The report also falls into the trap of confusing quality with quantity. It fails to recognise that the 'grid' pricing system is simply about rewarding the producer for the quantity of meat on a carcase. We cannot ignore the fact that eating quality is of equal importance to quantity.

After all, isn't eating quality the reason why Angus and Hereford schemes have become so popular in recent years? Interestingly, Hillsborough research has also shown that meat from the much-maligned Friesian-Holstein cross has actually got better eating qualities than meat from some breeds of so-called "quality" continental cattle.

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

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