Farm Ireland

Saturday 20 January 2018

We need to shout about grass-fed Irish beef


John Heney

As we head into the second half of September, this year's record-breaking growth is coming to an end and nature's amazing benevolence has left us with a welcome legacy of increased output in most sectors.

In my own case, while it is still far too early to give exact figures, the sales returns so far this autumn, combined with a marked improvement in the appearance of the remainder of my stock, would indicate an average rise of 10-12kg in carcass weight over last year along with an improvement in grades.

I must however urge a word of caution, because what these figures show is that last year's returns were the exception. The current carcass weights are actually very similar to my 2007-2009 figures.

I tend to forget that the stock I buy-in are generally middle of the road Friesian crosses. Despite the rapid increase in value of these so-called by-products of our dairy sector, I have to accept that unless there is a switch over to British Friesian cows, too high a percentage of them will continue to grade P.

It can be difficult sometimes to understand why cattle which look good enough to grade O, will only grade P, and vice versa. All I can say is that I hope that these apparent anomalies, whether real or imaginary, balance one another out.

The start of my farming year is usually mid-August, as this is the time when I buy-in my first store cattle.

This year is turning out to be a particularly difficult one for buying stores and I must say that at the moment I feel somewhat nervous about giving over €700 for Friesian crosses with absolutely no guarantees as to what the future may hold.

However, I take my hat off to the bravery of many of my fellow farmers whom I see giving nearly €1,000 for nice beef-breed store cattle of around the same weight.

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As a producer of almost totally grass-fed beef I was interested to hear a discussion about the Irish beef sector on a recent edition of Pat Kenny's morning show.

Food journalist Suzanne Campbell, co-author of the book Basket Case, which looked at Irish food and farming, gave a most revealing account of Ireland's comparative advantage in producing great grass and the unique ability of Irish cattle to turn this grass into naturally produced beef with its many proven health attributes.

Ms Campbell also highlighted the fact that health conscious consumers around the world are increasingly seeking out this beef.

Recently published results of a five-year trial undertaken at Bristol University also support this contention and found that slow-grown beef fed on traditional bio-diverse pasture tastes better and has many health benefits when compared to intensively produced beef.

'Slow grown' means that the cattle must be at least 30 months old, which raises serious questions about the industry's constant demand over the years for cattle of under 30 months of age.

So can Irish grass-based beef-finishing systems hope to gain from these developments? Perhaps not.

It appears that our marketing agencies are currently indulging in old-fashioned semantics with vague claims that Irish beef cattle are predominantly grass-fed throughout the year.

There is very little evidence in this marketing-speak that anybody involved in the industry is taking our unique grass-finished beef seriously.

In fact, I feel that a person could be forgiven for feeling that grass finishing systems are simply being used to provide a smokescreen for increasingly intensive and highly expensive beef-finishing systems to hide behind.

What is it about 'experts' that they always want to take the complicated and expensive path when the obvious solution is often staring them in the face?

As Ms Campbell points out, we in Ireland have a unique advantage in that we produce great grass which in turn produces a great food product which is much sought after around the globe.

No wonder people end up asking 'where is the beef?'

John Heney farms at Kilfeakle, Co Tipperary. Email:

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