John Moran sold the last of his suckler cows at the end of October.

The west Mayo farmer never had big numbers – he generally kept seven or eight cows – but the departure of the final four marked the end of the road for cattle on the family farm.

“The last of them unfortunately went a couple of days before the first of November. And I’ll admit that I miss them. I really, really miss the cows,” he said.

However, John is aware that his family’s decision to exit suckling is not unique.

Indeed, two other farms in his local area of Roskeen – which lies midway between Newport and Mulranny – have sold off their cows over the past 12 months.

Figures for Mayo for the 10-year period from 2012 to 2022 show the extent of the drop in suckler cow numbers in the northwest.

While there were close to 80,000 suckler cows in Mayo in 2012, this had fallen to 69,000 by 2022 – a 14% drop. The reduction nationally over the same 10-year period was almost 224,000 cows, a 20% drop, with the herd falling to almost 909,000 head.

And this contraction continued through 2023. Data from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) shows that just 755,000 calves were born to beef cows last year – around 60,000 head back on 2022 – while Bord Bia figures put the current number of suckler cows at 820,000.

While convergence has been a factor for intensive suckler farmers, primarility in the south and east of the country, other elements to the exodus from sucklers are at play for more extensive suckler farmers in the west and northwest.

Stephen Hannon of Aurivo Marts cites three main reasons for the falloff in suckler cow numbers; namely, the shift to part-time farming, the age profile of those involved in the enterprise and the absence of a successor in many instances.

The move into organics has also contributed to the drop in numbers, according to Billy Loftus of Mayo-Sligo Mart.

John Moran agrees with this analysis, but argues that the increased complexity of support schemes is also pushing out older farmers.

He cites the requirement for four- and five-star cows under suckler support schemes like SCEP as an example.

John’s son, Seán, who is taking over the farm – which comprises close to 65ac of enclosed land and a share of hill commonage and islands in Clew Bay – was not in favour of retaining the cows.

Following suckler cows after a day’s work off-farm was not sustainable in the long-term, Seán maintained. They should concentrate on their hill sheep operation instead, he said.

John disagreed, and argued for the cows’ retention.

The compromise solution involved testing the cows to ascertain their star rating – given that these ratings were essential to secure payments from support schemes into the future.

The results were not good.

“No cows had stars,” John conceded.

Seán pointed out that there was no money to be got from support schemes without stars, and if the family wanted to get into stars they’d have to buy in cows.

Scheme requirements

But ditching years of breeding and buying in stock solely to meet the requirements of schemes did not interest John.

In addition, he was not convinced that ‘bought-in’ animals could adapt to his ‘natural’ farming system.

Livestock needed to be reared and trained to the place, John reckoned. He pointed out that cows were outwintered after weaning on two islands in Clew Bay.

Similarly, some of the lands along the sea shore comprise a mix of rough grazing ground and cover where cows, calves and replacements foraged away themselves.

“My old cows were trained. You opened the gate and let them off back the shore. They calved in April or May and then did two-and-a-half months up the mountain in the summer. They knew the runs,” John explained.

“There was very little housing, except around calving. We’d finish the weanlings off grass; throw them a small biteen of meal for the last few weeks to shine them up a bit. It was a simple system,” he said

“But I suppose I’d be as traditional as you’d get,” he added.

However, this approach worked for John, and he always had customers for his weanlings.

“I used to do well out of the weanlings. We’d finish them to 280kg to 310kg. And you’d be proud to have a nice calf, with a straight back and a nice arse to him. “As proud as any man with a star calf at Balla,” he explained.

The level of demand for his weanlings was also a vindication of the cows John had bred over 38 years of farming.

“They were Angus cows when I got them but I crossed them with Limousin. And we had good sorts of cows and calves. We kept our own replacements; we never bought in,” he explained.

His cows may not have had stars, but they were ideally suited to the coastal environment of west Mayo and to Moran’s farming system – and they produced weanlings, which beef finishers wanted and paid handsomely to secure.

There is no incentive, no few quid at all for the ordinary farmer like me, producing cattle in a very simple way

However, although finishers valued his cattle, John Moran was clearly frustrated that this appreciation of his worth as a farmer was not shared by the Department of Agriculture.

“There is no incentive, no few quid at all for the ordinary farmer like me, producing cattle in a very simple way. There is nothing for that lad now,” he maintained.

“It’s all about stars,” he added.

John Moran. \ Michael McLaughlin

The complexity of the various suckler schemes and the online application processes are also a major obstacle for older farmers like John who “were not reared with pressing buttons on a computer”.

As more and more farmers opt to exit the suckler sector, John is increasingly mindful that a way of life around keeping cattle on mixed hill and lowland farms is being lost with the departure of every herd of cows.

“We always had cows on our farm, the same as everyone else. Cows for milk and, later, a few sucklers. But it would be easier to count the few farms that have cows now than to count the men that got out,” John admitted.

“To me it was a lovely way of life, and a nice natural way of life. And it was a traditional way of life that we were all at in this village here,” he said.

“But it’s gone on our farm now; and it won’t be back.”

Examining the fallout from the suckler exodus

What does the exodus of farmers from the suckler sector tell us about the enterprise and about the changes taking hold in Irish farming?

While some have characterised the decline in suckler cow numbers as reflecting a collapse in beef farmer confidence, Áine Macken-Walsh of Teagasc is not so sure things are that black and white.

“Farmers exiting suckler farming is a symptom of a loss of resilience in the suckler farming system,” Macken-Walsh explained.

Áine Macken-Walsh.

However, the fact that some are opting to move into other enterprises, such as sheep or calf-to-beef, is evidence that these family farms are actually resilient, Macken-Walsh pointed out.

Changing systems

“If farmers are changing systems to one which is less labour-intensive and perhaps more cost effective, that is a logical decision from their perspective and evidence of resilience,” she maintained.

“Resilience, put simply, is the ability to cope with and deal with threats and challenges.

“These threats or challenges can take many forms: examples are the absence of a successor; an inability to afford running a farm from a financial perspective; or, a lack of time or indeed willingness and motivation to work on the farm,” the Teagasc sociologist explained.

Macken-Walsh’s research assesses societal challenges relating to issues such as human co-operation, gender, animal health, climate change, and the bioeconomy.

Although family farms across the world are noted for their resilience, she said farmers who have run out of options and are forced to exit agriculture, or a particular enterprise, can experience a sense of “despair and failure”. There are also implications for the wider community and for the food supply chain, Macken-Walsh said.

Loss of diversity

Where farmers exit a particular sector like suckling, supply losses, and loss of diversity, can arise in the food system, she pointed out.

Moreover, the withdrawal of significant numbers of farmers from a particular enterprise can negatively impact the sense of community in an affected region.

This results from “the loss of multi-generational traditions of farming neighbours and co-operative relationships”, she explained.

But it’s not always bad news.

“For some farmers, the decision to exit farming can be an empowered one where they decide to pursue an alternative lifestyle and career pathway,” Macken-Walsh noted.

Case studies: age, health and off-farm work driving change

Jerry Doohan, Ballymote

Jerry Doohan has just agreed to lease the last of his suckler farm and he won’t be sorry to step back.

The soon-to-be former farmer from Bunnanadden in south Sligo got the pension this year and was keen to hand over the reins to the next generation.

“If you haven’t it done by pension age you’ve left it a bit late,” he said.

“It’s just time, I don’t want to get caught behind a gate by a calving suckler cow. They are more dangerous than the bull,” Jerry maintained.

Jerry Doohan.

He has been reversing out of sucklers over the last few years.

At the peak, Jerry kept “just shy” of 60 sucklers on his 185ac farm.

“As I got older, the number dropped and in the end I had just 20 left,” he said.

This week, he is due to sell a blast of red Limousin yearling heifers in Ballymote Mart.

“And I’m bringing home the trailer with me. I won’t be going back in again. They’ll make what they make,” Jerry insisted.

Although a lot of farmers have gotten out of sucklers, Jerry Doohan isn’t unduly pessimistic about the future for the enterprise.

“I think it will continue to reduce for a few more years, but it will probably hit a base level where supply and demand balance out,” he predicted.

He has leased the farm to a young local suckler farmer who is “rearing to go”.

From next week, Jerry’s focus shifts to rebuilding vintage Ferguson tractors, and preparing the ground for a hectare of native woodland that he intends planting.

Declan Garrett , Crossmolina

Work commitments were the deciding factor in Declan Garrett’s decision to get out of sucklers.

He is in the army and stationed in Galway, which made calving 30 suckler cows in north Mayo just “too much work”.

“I switched to bullocks. I buy in 15-month-old bullocks and carry them on to between 26 and 28 months,” Declan explained.

Declan Garrett.

While some of the cattle are factory-finished, most go for further feeding.

Declan never had second thoughts about getting out of sucklers.

“The bullocks are easier. I had plenty going on besides the sucklers,” explained the father of six.

While calving time was the busiest period, the breeding season was also very stressful.“During the winter I’d be leaving in the dark and coming home in the dark. Between working in Galway and minding kids, there was just too much going on,” he explained.

“It [suckling] was far more time-consuming than what I’m at now. If I was working locally, it might have been different.”

David McAndrew, Ballymachola, Killala

Health concerns put paid to David McAndrew’s plans to increase his suckler herd to 50 cows.

He had built the herd to 27 cows when ill health struck. He now buys in calves and carries them to 18 months.

Although David admits to missing the sucklers at times – usually during the summer when all the work is done – he doesn’t miss the calving season or the workload generally.

“It’s the workload that comes with the sucklers that’s the killer,” David maintained.

He was working in the morning before he started the day job, and again in the evening after he got home.

David McAndrew.

“There was two or three hours every evening. Always something to be done. A calf with scour, a calf not sucking, a sick cow or silage to be pushed in.

“And every year you’d be trying to make things as simple as possible but you’d still have the workload,” David explained.

“Since I got out, I have a life,” he maintained.