Did we succeed? That’s the question being asked by farmers this week, some of whom braved the elements over the past fortnight protesting at factory gates up and down the country.

Maybe it’s a little early to be asking this question but farmers expected results and fast.

While some progress has been made, the feeling on the ground appears to be that protesting farmers expected more progress – especially around price.

The problem, of course, was that price wasn’t allowed to be discussed as part of the meeting between the various farm organisation and Meat Industry Ireland (MII) but in reality that’s why thousands of farmers turned out to protest.

No change in prices

There is a sense of disappointment among some that nothing has changed in relation to price this week.

Many had hoped for some light at the end of the tunnel but that light hasn’t appeared.

One protestor who spoke to the Irish Farmers Journal said: “I’m personally very disappointed for all the protestors who spent endless hours – day and night – on the picket line being abused and threatened. These people have made huge sacrifices and have very little to show for the two weeks’ work. Am I any better off? I’m actually worse off as I can’t get any cattle killed this week.”

Fundamental change

The Beef Plan Movement has certainly focused attention on an industry that needs fundamental change if beef farmers are to stay in business – and it will have accelerated action on issues that should have been dealt with at the beef forum.

The Beef Plan received huge farmer support on the back of making a stand against factories and looking for price increases.

However, there has been some criticism of its handling of the step-down at factory gates after reiterating that it would not enter talks with preconditions and that it would stand firm at the factory gates until progress was made.

Appetite for more protests

The Beef Plan faces a tough decision now about returning to the gates but in all likelihood it won’t do so.

Speaking to farmers who protested last week, the appetite seems to be there to go back to the gates.

However, the two legal interventions by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) and individual factories seem to have turned the Beef Plan’s top officials around and protests were called off to enter talks.

The legal proceedings from the factories stated that those named would be held personally responsible for all costs if the case was lost.

Beef Plan and the IFA

One positive to come from the protests has been the fact that the Beef Plan Movement and the IFA met last weekend.

There is massive strength in unity and this shone through at Monday’s meeting as farm organisations were able to stand together to achieve common goals.

CCPC intervention

The intervention by the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has gone down very badly with farmers.

The letter issued to the Beef Plan Movement leaders stated that the CCPC was concerned that the Beef Plan Movement was breaching competition rules.

Many have seen this as an attack on farmers and confirms other views that the watchdog is more concerned about protecting big business as opposed to farmers’ rights.

Beef Plan issues and results

If we take a look at the Beef Plan Movement’s list of 13 issues and the requested policy changes (below), issues 1-5 are all part of certain retailer requirements.

This seems to be the area where least progress was made in the discussions. UK supermarkets and other customers all insist on these requirements being met.

It’s always been known that the higher the price, the tighter the carcase specification will be – and there is scope in the market to deliver a higher price for these animals.

The real question is how much of this higher price is being returned to farmers. Table 1 outlines the percentage of steers and heifers currently hitting the different specification criteria.

The problem lies where these criteria are combined. Just 44% of steers and 59% of heifers are currently getting the in-spec payment. Eighty-six per cent of steers and 89% of heifers are meeting the 70-day and four residency rule.

Grading is by far the biggest barrier here with just 63% of steers hitting the minimum grade while 74% of heifers are meeting minimum grades.

If we look at issues 6-9, these relate to trim and grading. There has been some progress made here.

Recording the liveweight of an animal on the kill line will feed through important information to farmers.

I’m not convinced it will solve the excessive trimming concerns. There are many reasons an animal can have a poor killout, including genetics, feeding and management.

One of the major talking points to come out of Monday’s meeting has been the talk of a grid review.

This grid review will have draft terms of reference circulated to all parties by Friday evening.

This idea has being doing the rounds for a number of months now and at the Irish Farmers Journal Beef Summit in Balinasloe, Cormac Healy stated that MII would be open to a review.

Farmers need to be careful here. The fact is that this exercise will be cost-neutral for factories.

With a changing national kill in terms of more beef coming from the dairy herd, this could mean farmers nationally losing out with poorer grading cattle penalised to a greater extent.

On issues 10-13, some progress has been made here also with factories looking at written price agreements with suppliers.

MII has also agreed to look at the insurance scheme with more data to become available from the Department of Agriculture this Friday. MII also confirmed that farmers can opt out of this scheme if they so wish.