Save our sucklers: sign our open letter
Open letter from readers of the Irish Farmers Journal to President Juncker, Commissioners Hogan and Malmström, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Michael Creed.

Dear President Juncker, Commissioners Hogan and Malmström, An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister Michael Creed

In 2017, Irish beef exports totalled €2.5bn. The backbone of this industry is our national suckler herd. Traditionally standing at over a million cows, the suckler herd has been a vital generator of economic activity in towns and villages throughout rural Ireland.

There are over 100,000 Irish farm families directly engaged in the production and finishing of suckler-bred animals. Alongside this, the beef processing industry generates another 10,000 jobs. Many of these processing facilities are located in rural towns and villages where alternative employment is limited. Furthermore, with the beef sector sourcing in excess of 90% of its inputs from within the Irish economy, suckler farming is key to sustaining the economic activity that generates thousands of jobs in the agricultural inputs sector.

Overall the Irish beef industry has traditionally contributed more to the Irish economy than any other manufacturing sector. Economic analysis indicates that for every €100 in exports, the net foreign earnings from the beef sector is over €50. This compares to just €19 for other manufacturing sectors including modern economy sectors such as pharmaceuticals and ICT.

Unfortunately, suckler beef production is an extremely low-margin business. Within the EU, the suckler herd has largely been maintained through a combination of direct payments that underpinned production and trade regulations that ensure only beef produced to EU standards can enter the EU market.

Along with providing EU consumers with safe, high-quality beef, both measures reflected a long-held view at national and EU level that the suckler cow played an important role as:

1 An economic generator in rural towns and villages across the EU.

2 An environmental custodian across some of the most marginal land areas within the EU.

An analysis carried out by UCD on behalf of the IFA reinforces the role of the suckler cow as a wealth creator, showing that every €1 of support provided to suckler farmers generated over €4 of economic activity in rural towns and villages.

Unfortunately, we have in recent years seen a steady erosion in the level of direct support targeted towards the suckler sector. A recent analysis carried out by the Irish Farmers Journal showed that a typical suckler farm has seen the level of support received from both the EU and Irish Government fall by typically €200 per cow.

This lack of support has coincided with a growing appetite within the EU to undermine the EU beef market by allowing increased access to beef imports from parts of the world that do not have the same costs or production standards. Currently the EU is negotiating a trade deal with South American countries that, if agreed, would have devastating consequences for the EU and Irish suckler herds.

All this is taking place against a backdrop where EU and Irish beef farmers are struggling to cope with the consequences of Brexit. No sector within any member state is as exposed to the fallout from Brexit as the Irish beef industry. The UK market currently consumes five times more Irish beef than the Irish market.

The lack of profitability, due to the steady withdrawal of support from both Europe and the Irish Government and the uncertainty around the future of the EU beef market, due to ongoing trade deals and Brexit, is seeing the Irish suckler herd slowly starting to wither away.

Unless both the EU and Irish Government move to quickly inject confidence back into the suckler sector, then the pace at which farmers exit the sector will accelerate, with the financial consequences being felt far beyond the farm gate.

By signing this letter, I am calling on you, the European Commission and the Irish Government to recognise the important role that suckler farmers play in maintaining a vibrant rural Ireland by committing to:

1 A fully funded Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) with the commitment to introduce targeted direct support for all low-income sectors including sucklers.

2 Protect EU and Irish suckler farmers in all upcoming trade deals and reject any demands from non-EU countries for increased access to EU beef markets.

3 Safeguarding farmers’ income both during and after Brexit negotiations through the implementation of market support measures.

4 Supporting the campaign for the introduction of a suckler cow support payment of €200/cow to underpin the sector and halt rural decline.

West remains suckler stronghold as cow numbers dip below 1m
The Minister for Agriculture has released the latest figures for the numbers and locations of suckler cows in Ireland.

The number of suckler cows in Ireland has dipped below one million, with the latest figures showing there are now 951,397 suckler cows in the country.

Western counties remain a stronghold for Ireland’s beef herd, despite numbers contracting since the end of 2017, when CSO figures showed there were 1,018,300 suckler cows.

Drop of 7%

There has been a 7% (66,903 head) drop in the intervening 12 months.

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed revealed the numbers as of the end of 2018 derived from the Department's Animal Movement and Identification (AIM) database in response to a parliamentary question from Fianna Fáil's Charlie McConalogue.

Suckler farms

Just nine counties account for over half of all the sucklers in the country – Galway, Mayo, Cork, Clare, Donegal, Kerry, Roscommon, Cavan and Tipperary.

The Minister also revealed there are over 66,000 farms that have at least one suckler cow. The same nine counties as above make up just under two thirds of all suckler farms.

Read more

Map: how many suckler cows are in your county?

Suckler cow numbers down 23,000hd as dairy expands

Sucklers the image for Irish beef but farmers not getting the return - ICSA
ICSA wants buy-in from the meat industry to market suckler beef as a high-value niche product.

Suckler farming is the image used to promote Irish beef but suckler farmers are not getting the return for their system of farming, according to the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA).

ICSA suckler chair John Halley said it was imperative that a move to secure EU protected geographical indication status (PGI) for Irish beef focused on the suckler system.

Halley made the comments following a stakeholder meeting on attaining PGI status for Irish beef organised by the Department of Agriculture last week.

Premium product

Halley said: “There are many reasons why suckler beef should be seen as premium product, including high animal welfare standards, high natural health status and the fact that much of the suckler production is intrinsically linked with maintaining high amenity landscapes in regions where tourism is vital.”

A previous attempt to secure PGI status was rejected by the European Commission in 2009. Halley said any attempt to secure PGI status for the entire kill, including dairy beef, risked making the same mistake again.

Suckler brand

ICSA believes it must be developed on a suckler brand to have any hope. Halley said ideally it would be developed in conjunction with an agri-environmental scheme more like REPS and less like GLAS.

“There will have to be buy-in from the meat industry to market this as a high-value niche product. This will not work if we have artificial incentives to encourage farmers to keep more suckler cows.

“Instead we need to focus on paying better direct payments to more extensive systems of farming because we have seen time and time again that scarcity is far better than traceability or sustainability for farmers,” Halley concluded.

Read more

‘Government must push for special Brexit measures for beef’

ICSA urges beef farmers not to buy dairy-bred calves

Timeline: how the Chinese market was opened for Irish beef
In 2017, beef imports to China were 100,000t more than Ireland's total beef production and recently published Department report has detailed how access was secured.

The Chinese beef market was opened to Irish beef on 16 April 2018 at the end of a process that took several years.

The inaugural market access annual report, published by the Department of Agriculture, has detailed the steps that took place along the way to open the Chinese market.

Ireland was the first major European beef exporter to secure access to the Chinese beef market.

Growing demand

It is expected that Chinese consumers will eat close to 9m tonnes of beef by 2020.

Beef imports stand at 688,000t in 2017, over 100,000t more than Ireland produces annually.

It is estimated these imports will rise to 2.3m tonnes by 2022.

Consumers in China are estimated to have consumed 8.5m tonnes of beef in 2018, second only to the USA.

While beef consumption is low at 4kg per capita in comparison with 19kg per capita in Ireland, this is expected to grow.

An increase of just 1kg would equate to demand for an additional 1.4m tonnes of beef.

It is forecasted the demand for premium imported beef will rise significantly driven by increased urbanisation, higher disposable incomes and health awareness.

Securing access

The first major step in securing access was the lifting of the BSE ban on Irish beef by Chinese authorities in 2015.

This was followed by a successful inspection visit in 2016 focusing on competent authority systems by the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ).

Once Irish control systems were approved, a protocol on the export of frozen boneless beef from Ireland to China was signed in April 2017. Frozen boneless beef accounts for 80% of all Chinese imports of beef.


Individual factories who had applied for market access were audited by the Certification and Accreditation Administration of the People’s Republic of China (CNCA) in August of 2017.

The first three of these plants were approved in April 2018 and, following a trade mission to China in May, a further three plants were approved.

Work is currently under way to progress applications for more factories to increase Ireland’s ability to supply the market.