Friday 24 January 2020

Thirty-month rule devaluing Irish grass-fed beef

Thriving: John Heney’s cattle pictured on his Tipperary farm last week. Some of these will go for slaughter in the coming days.
Thriving: John Heney’s cattle pictured on his Tipperary farm last week. Some of these will go for slaughter in the coming days.

John Heney

It has been an incredible summer that seems to surpass even the magical summers of our childhood. To cap it all, I'm even getting sporadic downpours that have ensured great grass growth.

But I am concerned that our benign Irish weather pattern is changing. In recent years we have experienced some very low winter and spring temperatures, along with some exceptionally high summer rainfall. If these variations continue they are bound to have serious consequences for the future of our food production systems in Ireland.

However, we live in the present and this year's 
summer has suited my farm and my cattle continue to thrive.

The cattle trade has also moved away from its usual pattern. Normally we would be emerging from a period of scarce supply and strong prices around now.

This year everything appears to have been turned on its head. Thankfully factory prices 
appear to have stabilised for the moment.

As the selling season for grass-fed cattle is now upon us, my current dilemma is whether to sell cattle before they go over thirty-months, or keep them on to graze my very good supply of grass.

It now nearly twenty years since the thirty-month age 
restriction was introduced as a result of BSE. I have never understood how a country that prides itself on its grass-fed beef ever allowed such an age limit to be put in place.

Most of our cattle are born in January, February and March, so the thirty-month deadline means that most of these cattle miss the very important beef finishing months of July, August and September if they are to comply.

Fast forward to 2014 and we hear of reports of the same thirty-month limit being used by the factories to buy cheaper cattle with deductions of up to 15c/kg.

Alarmed by these reports I decided to some research, namely a quick tour of some local supermarkets

As far as the big three supermarkets were concerned I could see no mention of the age of the beef animal on the shelves, and no mention either on the packaging.

There was however one exception that I found most confusing. It involved one of the traditional beef breeds. When I examined the small print on the back of their packaging, I saw that it did mention that the beef was from animals slaughtered at under thirty months of age.

This I found quite bizarre as the people involved in this scheme are actually paying a substantial additional premium to farmers for 'finished cattle' up to 36 months of age. Very strange indeed.

I fail to understand how meat can be classified as an inferior product just because it is from an animal that is just a few weeks over thirty months. At the same time, ten or twelve year-old cull cows are making virtually the same price.

In the absence of consumer pressure this thirty month issue appears to be little more than a marketing gimmick used by some supermarkets.

The problem is that it is a gimmick that is de-valuing our world renowned grass-fed beef and costing beef farmers a huge amount of money.

It is also forcing farmers to feed expensive imported meal, the contents of which consumers are told very little about. In fact the only people who appear to benefit are the millers.

Back on the farm and the recent good weather was a great help in getting my second-cut silage done. This was a combination of after-grass that I did not need for grazing and part of a field that had gone too strong. The grass was very dry so I only left it wilt overnight and had it picked up early the next morning.

A few years ago I allowed some second cut silage to get too dry and I had a problem with mould as I had difficulty sealing the pit properly.

I should now have enough silage for the winter, but I am still a bit concerned as my pit of first-cut silage has sunk a lot during the summer months. This is in spite of
the fact that it appeared to 
be quite a heavy cut at the time.

I have also finished topping my AEOS fields that couldn't be touched until late July. I must say that it's nice to have all the grazing fields looking tidy at last.

John Heney farms at Kilfeacle,Tipperary

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