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Suckler outlook is gloomy as costs outpace returns

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The more things change, the more they stay the same. There appears to be plenty of talk from all sides in the present beef crisis, about how all sides are prepared to talk to one another.

But, from a suckler beef farmer's point of view, very little of substance seems to have changed.

If the present situation continues, in my opinion it is the beginning of the end of the commercial suckler herd.

We got our calving report from ICBF in the last couple of weeks and I had to smile when I saw the subheading, "Profit through Science."

The physical performance of the herd shows up as being in the top 15pc in all categories, except calving interval which, at 372 days, is just two days outside the top 15pc.

But unfortunately another document that we have been looking at over the last weeks, and it makes abysmal reading, is our 2013 profit monitor as we used a substantial chunk of our SFP.

While our stocking rate and output figures show up quite respectably compared to other profit monitor farmers, our cost of production is a real issue and something we have to look seriously at.

Over the past decade, our three main costs, feed, fertiliser and contracting, have all increased significantly while our returns have not kept pace with them. So, while there is always room for improvement, right now I find it hard to see how we can survive in suckler beef in our current system.

With that in mind, we have to look at exit/adjustment strategies and one thing we plan to do this autumn is to sow some winter barley in the existing tillage land with a view to ploughing more ley in the spring.

Meanwhile, this year's harvest has been completed in excellent weather, with our best yields ever, at 3.1t/ac for spring barley.

For the first time in years, we had a surplus of straw to sell. We rolled and treated barley with Maxammon, as we have done successfully for the last few years. So we had quite a bit of surplus barley to sell and while the price was disappointing the cheque was welcome when it came.

I am always reluctant to say anything until we are finished calving but, so far, with over three quarters of cows calved, things have gone very well.

The conditions are ideal for young calves, dry ground and the sun on their backs.

We are going to finish the bulls under 16 months again this year. To try to avoid any check to their thrive, we introduced the indoor feed to them while they were out in the field.

Although it seems a pity to be housing them in the current weather, especially as we have such a huge surplus of grass on the farm.

Some new grass we sowed this year has done very well. But I don't think its possible to achieve the fat score requirements without putting them in.

The cows with calves are all out happily grazing and will be for a good while, hopefully. At the moment, it's hard to see that they will eat what grass is in front of them but I know that can change very quickly.

We have let cows and calves out to graze paddocks that really should be cut for silage but I can't see the point of going to the expense of making silage when we have more than enough already saved for almost all foreseeable circumstances.

Robin Talbot farms in Ballacolla, Co Laois in partnership with his mother Pam and wife Ann. He can be contacted at robin.talbot@independent.ie

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