In my job as beef editor with the Irish Farmers Journal I get to meet a lot of different people – some quiet, some loud, some articulate and some less articulate.
Every now and again I meet people who project energy and enthusiasm for what they do. Henry Burns is one of these people.
I called in to his farm on Tuesday this week for a chat about where we are going as a beef industry and what in his opinion needs to happen to secure the future of the suckler cow.
Full-time beef farms are going to take an unacceptable hit in this [CAP] reform
As Henry bounced around the yard pointing out finishing bulls, this year’s calves and next year’s replacements you couldn’t but be buoyed by his passion and positivity.
Burns has a big CV – IFA sheep chair for four years from 2006 to 2009 and then livestock chair for four years from 2012 to 2015. When he speaks, you listen.
He has some strong views on the direction of our industry: “Full-time beef farms are going to take an unacceptable hit in this [CAP] reform. I’m looking at a massive hit on this farm. Something has to change to make that up and I don’t know what that is yet.
We worked very hard to build up those payments
“I won’t be changing enterprise. I’m a beef man through and through but it’s very frustrating to see that level of support taken away from beef farmers. It’s very hard to encourage the next generation into a system like that. We worked very hard to build up those payments, they were paid out on level of activity. They didn’t just fall from the sky”
Burns knows what hard work is. Land purchase in the late 1980s financed by high interest rate loans meant the farm was under pressure to meet repayments so there was no other choice but to work his way out of it.
There’s a lot of opportunity on mixed enterprise farms that you can tap into.
“Right or wrong, we always tried to keep the money on the farm. We do a lot of our own machinery work and repairs to avoid paying big bills and it works for us. I’m also trying to get every enterprise on the farm working together – cattle dung going back to tillage ground, lambs grazing rape after winter crops.
“There’s a lot of opportunity on mixed enterprise farms that you can tap into. We’ve sort of lost that story in the environment debate. Those systems working together has to be massive for environmental sustainability. In terms of environment, the vast majority of beef farms have nothing to worry about and have a great story to tell.”
Burns on coupled supports
“It was a mistake not to look for a coupled suckler support payment. It would likely negatively impact me here at home but it was the right thing to do and would have made sure that payments were directed to active farmers.
“It would have also made sure that supports were directed to our low-income sectors. That’s what CAP should be about, supporting farmers that need it most.
“The proposed system won’t do that.”
Burns on dairy beef
“I’m not anti-dairy. I admire dairy farmers the way they have driven on their business.
We have a different cow now and that brings its own set of challenges
“Dairy beef is here to stay and we have to deal with it. We reared calves here in the 1980s and got on well with them.
“We have a different cow now and that brings its own set of challenges. I see lads selling suckler cows to go into these calves and I think they will regret it.
“We also need to be careful as a country in how we are perceived from a marketing point of view. We have a strong reputation for suckler beef and we need to maintain that.”
Burns on BEAM
“It’s an absolute disaster. Beef finishers were on their knees that year taking as low as €3.30/kg for beef.
That payment was just compensating losses. Now the Department are clawing it back.
“The 5% reduction shouldn’t have been in the scheme. The Department of Agriculture hadn’t the infrastructure in place to communicate monthly stocking rates to farmers, and farmers are paying for that now.”
Burns on BDGP and BEEP
“I’m all for science and new thinking and I think that genomics has a role to play in breeding. It has to be seen as a beneficial tool in breeding. I fought for BDGP at the time.
“We probably ran before we could walk and maybe three-star cows should have been allowed for the scheme in the first round.
We shouldn’t settle for less
“They are a massive part of farm income now and Pillar II supports will be even more important in the next round of CAP in the absence of coupled supports; €300/cow and €30/ewe is the absolute minimum and not just on the first five cows and 50 ewes. We shouldn’t settle for less.”
Burns on the future
“We have to stay positive. We have an industry worth fighting for. Suckler cow numbers have kept up even though the experts said they would drop.
I think the Minsiter for Agriculture is sleepwalking us into an income crisis on full-time beef farms
“We have to realise that everybody can’t go dairying and we can’t forget about the farmers that have no other option but to beef farm. I think people will start to see value in suckler beef as it becomes more scarce, especially the factories when they compare killing a 250kg carcase versus a 350kg carcase.
“On supports, I think the Minsiter for Agriculture is sleepwalking us into an income crisis on full-time beef farms. I understand that we may have to deal with less supports but we can’t be asked to work for nothing.”