There is a degree of annoyance among suckler farmers in relation to the calf genotyping scheme announced by the ICBF.
They believe that they will have to pay about €20 to have calves genotyped, when dairy calves will only be €4.
That is partly true, but some context has to be applied to the two-tier pricing of genotyping.
Firstly, it’s not about dairy and beef calves. The scheme, as I understand it, is open to all calves, with no distinction between beef and dairy.
Brexit Adjustment Reserve (BAR) funding is being drawn down to establish a broad genetic database of our cattle. This will be of great value to cattle farmers, calf-to-beef and suckler farmers alike.
However, there is a catch. Farmers who are been accepted into the Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme (SCEP) will receive support to genotype 70% of their cows as part of that scheme.
And under EU rules, you can’t be paid twice for the same measure. This means the calves of those cows won’t be eligible for genotyping at €4.
However, only a maximum of 70% of a suckler herd can be in SCEP. The calves of those cows not in the scheme will be eligible for genotyping for €4. As will the calves from suckler herds not in the SCEP.
I think the reaction of suckler and cattle farmers to this aspect of a scheme that will be good for the sector is a sign of a deeper frustration. Driven by a belief that the beef sector has been on the hind tit for much of this century.
It’s over 20 years since the IFA went to war with the beef factories in search of 90p/lb.
BSE had devastated beef prices over the previous five years or so, and this was a line in the sand.
Then came the Fischler reforms. Suckler farmers who sold cattle with ‘clean ears’ (eligible for the nine and 22-month schemes) during the reference years lost out permanently in the associated basic payment.
And suckler farmers have felt like the real “forgotten farmers” for the last decade. Watching as dairy farming surged forward once quotas ended. Watching as many of their fellow suckler farmers who had farms suitable for dairying switched.
A sample list of prominent suckler farmers who are now dairy farmers is instructive.
John Bryan and Eddie Downey were the last two cattle farmers to hold the IFA presidency; both are now dairy farmers (in Downey’s case there is also an important poultry operation on the farm too).
Michael Doran, the current ICBF chair, came to prominence as the chair of the IFA livestock committee, but transitioned to dairy some years ago.
So many prominent suckler farmers have converted that there is a hint of twilight about the sector
Brian Rushe, the current IFA deputy president, was in the process of transitioning to dairy from sucklers when he first came to prominence as a Farmer Writes columnist in the Irish Farmers Journal’s pages.
JJ Kavanagh, who missed out on that position by a handful of votes, still has sucklers, indeed he served on the IFA’s livestock committee until recently. However, he too has a dairy enterprise now.
So many prominent suckler farmers have converted that there is a hint of twilight about the sector.
The advent of the Beef Plan Movement unleashed pent-up frustration, leading inevitably to another face-off at the factory gates.
The stakeholder forum has delivered gains, but not enough to leave cattle farmers feeling like they are getting a fair shake.
There are a number of threats to our cattle market. We have to start, and I apologise for using the B word, with Brexit.
It may be seven years since the UK narrowly voted to leave the EU, but we are still ultimately in a transitional phase. Some may feel that the worst is surely now over. Actually, the long-term effect of Brexit on the viability of Irish cattle farming is still to be fully understood.
The arrangements in place are working reasonably well, but we still have no permanence.
The Northern Ireland protocol is still under political pressure from unionist parties, and could see further changes that might affect cattle trade both north/south across the border, and east/west between this island and Britain.
The other threat is post-Brexit trade deals between the UK and beef exporters. New trade arrangements with Australia and New Zealand kick in on Thursday next.
They are a concern, but Brazil and the other Mercosur nations of South America are a much bigger threat.
Ireland is still very dependent on the UK as a beef export market, accounting for 43% of exports in 2022 in value terms.
While Bord Bia is working hard to develop new markets, particularly within the EU, we can ill-afford to lose a significant market share of the UK market.
The BAR was specifically created to address vulnerable sectors. Perhaps only the mushroom sector is more dependent on the British market than beef. Cattle farmers are wondering why they aren’t at the front of the queue for support.
The fact that BAR funds are being used for the ICBF genomic scheme is triggering.
The other big challenge beef farming faces is climate change. The pressure to reduce emissions from food production will only increase.
Yes, there has been good news from the Teagasc research led by Donagh Berry.
Yes, there is a mounting campaign around how methane from grazing bovine animals is evaluated in terms of its impact on global warming, with research coming out of California this week to that effect.
Optimism should not be blind, however. There is equally a concerted campaign that meat eating is inherently bad for the planet, and that we must convert to a plant-based diet as soon as is practical and possible.
In that context, a trade mission to China for the promotion of beef is going to be harder to justify in future.
Especially as that beef, while primarily grass-fed, with long summers outdoors grazing, is still dependent on feed imports. Imports that are coming from across the Atlantic.
The other issue is demographic. The average age of farmers is an issue.
I’m 57 in a few days, and that makes me the average Irish farmer.
While I’m unaware of statistical data that breaks farmers age down by sector, it’s reasonable to assume that suckler and beef farmers are older on average.
The small scale of beef herds is a further demographic disadvantage, with only 15 cows on average across the 55,000 suckler herds in 2022. Almost 45,000 suckler herds have no more than 25 cows.
Sure, many of those farms also have sheep, others have tillage, but older farmers with smaller operations means we could be on the brink of a cliff-face in terms of suckler numbers in Ireland.
If we want to prevent that, we need a coherent plan. Soon.