While no one will admit it, the 29% reduction in suckler cows will now become a target reduction. Every policy that is discussed over the next seven years will be thrashed out with the 29% cull of suckler cows in the background. When the agricultural policy advisers meet in Ag house, the 29% figure will be in the back of all policymakers’ minds and, in turn, any proposals to support the suckler herd will fall on deaf ears from now until 2030.
There are huge pressures coming at the suckler herd. With the future of the nitrates derogation now in real doubt, dairy farmers will require thousands of acres to dilute stocking rates. The other demands for land coming down the line are rewetting, or to give it its new term in the Marginal Abatement Cost Curve (MACC), “water table management”, land for anaerobic digesters, organics and forestry. High costs and low enterprise profitability isn’t helping, but that doesn’t take into account what the suckler cow does for rural Ireland.
I always believed that there was a way that all sectors could have a future. With Charlie McConalogue, a suckler farmer from a county with 35,000 suckler cows in his constituency, as Minister for Agriculture there was some hope that the suckler cow would be protected and young farmers who wished to build a future in beef farming would have the chance to do so. That won’t be happening between now and 2030.
Essentially, the Government has chosen to let the suckler farmer wither on the vine. Death by a thousand cuts, so to speak. Squeeze them until they have no other option but to sell up, go organic, plant their land with forestry or rent to a dairy farmer.
All of the language around the culling of the suckler herd has been very carefully chosen. You will hear Minister McConalogue argue that there will be no involuntary culling of suckler cows, but the reduction in supports is leaving farmers with no other choice but to get out and look at alternatives to survive.
The dairy industry must be sitting back and thinking that all their Christmases have come at once. Coming off the back of the average dairy farmer earning €150,000 in 2022, this sector now has the Teagasc backing to continue to grow over the next eight years.
This licence to expand is extremely important to attract young people into a sector that has a future. Suckler farming, on the other hand, will not be able to attract young blood, given the direction in policy that the current Government is taking. Picture a meeting in Ag house of policymakers in the next two years. One expert might suggest an idea on how to support the suckler sector between now and 2030. This will be quickly shot down on the basis of less suckler cows being needed to meet our climate change targets.
We are assigned to 29% less and policy will be formulated to make sure this happens. It won’t be a direct cull, but rather a tightening of the knot on the rope that will eventually choke the sector.
What will 400,000 less suckler cows mean?
A national cull of the suckler herd will mean huge transformational change for rural Ireland, especially in the west of the country. Reduced suckler cows in the east and south will be replaced to some extent by dairy cows, with an 8% growth of dairy cow numbers predicted to continue in the current modelling up to 2030. Dairy calf to beef systems will also replace some of the cows where land can’t be exploited for dairying.
The decline in numbers of suckler cows will have massive implications for many service providers upstream and downstream of the suckler farm. Veterinary cover in the west of Ireland will come under pressure. We are already seeing issues in some areas, with vets stretched to provide 24-hour veterinary cover in remote parts of the west.
We will see the widespread closure of marts across the west of Ireland, as the economics of staying open servicing a lot less animals just won’t stack up. Critical mass of weanlings and suckler cattle could also put our valued live weanling export trade at risk. We mustn’t forget that suckler cows generate huge economic activity in areas where there is little else potential to do so.
Teagasc research has shown that we have one of the most carbon-efficient beef production systems in the world, so why are we winding down our sector? If beef isn’t produced here it will be somewhere else and policy makers know this won’t help the global threat of climate change. Technology adoption is difficult, but surely we should try this before we take the easy option of culling the national suckler herd.
Bord Bia marketing
We can’t forget the power of our suckler herd in terms of marketing Irish beef. If you pick up any promotional material that Bord Bia or Irish processors produce, it’s a suckler cow or suckler beef animal that fronts up that campaign.
With one-third of our suckler cows being culled and the national suckler herd dropping to 600,000 cows, what issues does this present for us when selling beef to international customers?
Factories always talk about our unique selling point (USP) and sucklers ticked the box here. There isn’t anything unique in producing beef from the dairy herd. Dairy genetics will drive dairy breeding and nothing else. Sexed semen may reduce the number of dairy bull calves, but it will do nothing for cow type.
The quest for smaller dairy cows will continue and beef traits will be forfeited at every opportunity. Beef farmers will be left to work with whatever they are given, and huge pressure will be put on beef farmers to rear these calves. You can expect policy changes and support payments to make this happen. We could even see dairy farmers paying beef farmers to rear their calves in the future
Beef factories have already begun their transition to dairy beef. Kepak and ABP both have factory-farmer contracts up and running, with Kepak partnering with Ireland’s largest dairy processer, Tirlán, to form partnerships with dairy and beef farmers. They saw the shift in the supply chain coming and moved to guarantee their supplies of dairy beef. Factories have been lukewarm in their response to any suggestion of a suckler beef brand, citing consumers unwillingness to pay extra for suckler beef.
They will need dairy beef now to stay in business, as our once-famous suckler sector faces its demise.
Farm organisations also have to take some responsibility for what has happened. They have failed farmers when it comes to protecting one of our most vulnerable sectors. To date, there has been no response to the 29% required from any of them. One sector is singled out and everyone stays silent. The plan for the demise of the suckler herd started 10 years, when the current reforms were in their planning infancy. CAP supports have been moved away from suckler farms to other sectors. Many farm organisations have remained strategically silent on this issue. The Department of Agriculture has kept this under wraps and, to date, hasn’t published this shift in money out of the suckler sector. The Government will argue that suckler numbers will reduce on a voluntary basis, I would argue that it’s anything but voluntary.