The big dilemma facing Irish beef farmers
Is there really a crisis in the beef sector? You wouldn't think it going by the paltry 200-300 farmers that turned up outside the Department of Agriculture for the"mass protest" that had been predicted by the IFA. This was despite IFA headquarters sending out thousands of text messages to their members flagging the protest and the assembly details.
It is true, however, that the vast majority of beef farmers make little or nothing from their enterprises. Worse still, many of them actually subsidise what it costs them to bring their cattle to slaughter. Perversely, this usually comes from another subsidy, the Single Farm Payment that pours €1.5bn of European taxpayers' money into farmers' bank accounts every year.
No wonder the likes of the Goodmans, Keatings, Queallys and Browns that collectively own the vast majority of the Irish beef processing industry through ABP, Kepak and Dawn are now spreading their tentacles across the Irish sea into Britain and the Continent.
These are all billion-euro operations in their own right, and have made multi-millionaires out of their owners.
But here's the really baffling part. The same farmers that dip into their EU farm payments to continue supplying cheap cattle to these multinational companies would still be entitled to their subsidies even if they kept no cattle at all.
EU rules stipulate that farmers must simply keep their land in good agricultural condition to qualify for the payment. If a farmer wishes, he can simply keep the weeds topped with a mower and still cash the subsidy cheques.
The reality is that the majority of the 100,000 farmers that send cattle to the meat factories are accidental beef farmers. About 18,000 are dairy farmers that need to replace 20pc of their dairy cows every year. But a much bigger portion are landowners that have a bit of land and keep a few bullocks out of habit or hobby, while an off-farm job or Single Farm Payment pays the majority of bills.
The number of farmers that actually depend on an income from the beef that they sell is probably closer to 10,000.