Ireland’s suckler cow population continues to decline.
Suckler cow numbers have seen one of the biggest drops between 2020 and 2021 over the last 10 years, with just over 41,000 fewer suckler cows in the country on 1 July 2021 compared with 1 July 2020.
This represents a 4.4% drop. Some of this drop is likely due to BDGP ending at the end of 2020.
Sucklers farmers could opt to continue in BDGP for an extra year or exit the scheme. Those who participated in the scheme since 2015 were tied to keeping suckler cows to generate the annual BDGP payment.
The latest figures show a worrying trend for full-time beef farms. The midlands and southeast would have traditionally been host to the largest proportion of full-time farmers and it is on these farms that we are seeing the biggest changes taking place.
Table 1 outlines the details of where suckler cow numbers have come from in the last 11 years on a county by county basis.
Wexford, a county with just under 34,000 suckler cows in 2010, has seen numbers on the steady decline over the last 10 years. There were 26,879 suckler cows in Wexford on 1 July 2021, representing a 20% drop in the last 11 years. One of the largest drops has come in the last 12 months, with an 8.3% drop recorded.
It’s a similar story in Kilkenny, Meath, Offaly, Laois, Kildare and Tipperary, with all these counties seeing between a 6.5-6.8% drop in suckler cow numbers over the last 12 months. This is big Glanbia country so it’s unclear as to what effect the current curb on expansion will have on the reduction of suckler cow numbers.
Tipperary and Cork have seen the largest drop in suckler cow numbers in the last 10 years, with a drop of just under 20,000 cows being recorded in Tipperary and a drop of just over 18,000 suckler cows in Cork.
Almost 161,000 suckler cows have been wiped from the system in the last 11 years. There were 1,067,398 suckler cows in Ireland in 2010. This has dropped to 907,059 in 2021.
Moving to the other end of the scale, Leitrim saw the lowest drop in cow numbers over the last 12 months, with just 310 fewer cows being recorded from 2020 to 2021 or a 1.2 % drop.
Leitrim, Dublin, Clare, Donegal, Kerry and Sligo were the counties where the lowest drops were recorded.
All counties, with the exception of Dublin, were dominated by marginal land and part-time suckler operations.
Clare, Donegal, Leitrim and Sligo have the most stable suckler cow population over the last five years.
A key pointer as to where numbers are going is the number of replacements coming into the national herd.
The number of first-calving suckler heifers coming into the national herd actually declined by 5% in 2021 compared to 2020. Some 168,229 suckler replacements calved for the first time in 2021 compared to 177,076 calving for the first time in 2020.
Meath and Louth saw the biggest decline, with a 12.7% and a 10.3% drop respectively. Carlow and Wexford saw a 9.4% drop, while Laois saw a 9.3% drop in replacement heifers calving for the first time in 2021 compared to 2020.
Leitrim, Clare, Dublin, Kerry and Cavan were the counties where the lowest drops occurred. Leitrim actually recorded no drop in 2021, with 4,685 heifers calving in 2021 compared to 4,679 calving in 2020.
There has been a long-standing debate as to where suckler cow replacements should come from.
Many argued that the BDGP encouraged suckler farmers to keep lower-quality replacements from the suckler herd. The data would suggest that this hasn’t materialised with the percentage of suckler replacements coming from the dairy herd in the last 10 years actually declining.
Some 26% of our suckler cows were classified as first-cross dairy in 2010. This has dropped to 23% in 2021. There has been an equal decline in numbers across both types in the last 12 months.
If we take a look at the replacement heifers coming into the suckler herd and calving for the first time in 2021, we see that there is a 9.1% decline in first-cross dairy replacements coming into the herd in 2021 comapred to 2020.
In 2021 there were 127,585 crossbred suckler heifers calving for the first time in the suckler herd compared to 40,644 first-cross dairy heifers coming into the suckler herd.
Slow and painful death of suckler sector
We are beginning to the see the effects of a slow and painful death of the Irish suckler herd.
I would envisage that by 2030, we will see very few full-time suckler beef farmers left in the country. Instead, suckler cows will be confined to part-time farms in the west of Ireland where no other options are available. These farms will be kept alive through environmental payments.
The big question is if Pillar II coupled supports like BDGP and BEEP are phased out over time and farmers don’t need stock to claim Pillar I supports and environmental payments, will the Irish suckler cow even manage to survive on the hills in the west.
Time will tell, but when policymakers make a decision to sacrifice an industry and reduce supports, farmers will find it very hard to continue.
The next round of CAP supports will see full-time beef farms hit hardest. Because of the nature of their farming activity, these farms had generated higher than average entitlements, which will now see some of the biggest cuts applied.
For many of these full-time beef farms, it will force some tough decisions to be made. Some of these changes have already been taking place over the last five years, with Wexford, Kilkenny, Meath, Offaly and Laois all seeing the biggest drops in suckler cow numbers in the last 12 months.
It’s no coincidence that these counties are also some of the fastest-growing counties for dairy cow numbers in the last 12 months. In light of reduced supports and challenging markets, these full-time beef farms have been forced to switch to dairying to simply make ends meet.
The suckler herd decline is expected to continue and could accelerate in the face of reducing Government supports for the sector.
There are some who will welcome this decline and point to the better opportunity that this presents to enter a profitable dairy sector.
For others it stirs up emotions of anger and sadness as they watch a sector slowly die, like a ship running onto a sandbank with no captain at the wheel.
For the Government, it presents a real challenge in terms of meeting our environmental commitments over the next 10 years. They have chosen to abandon full-time suckler farms, which compared to dairying have a lower stocking rate, lower level of fertiliser use and generally higher level of biodiversity on their farms.
There are many who think that if suckler cow numbers continue to decline, then dairy cow numbers can continue to grow which will lead to this famous “stable national herd” which everybody has been talking about for the last two weeks.
To sacrifice 80,000 cattle farms to allow 10,000 dairy farms grow and expand is mind-boggling but that’s the situation that is staring us in the face.
Going organic, going part-time, reducing your stocking rate, rewetting marginal land, planting trees and letting the hedges and habitats grow and maybe rearing a few calves for your neighbour milking dairy cows – that’s the new direction of travel on beef farms.
What will compensate beef farmers for all this is that warm fuzzy feeling we will get in 2030 when we hit our climate change targets.
The planes will still be flying and the Brazilian beef will likely be flowing into Europe at that stage, but we’ll have done our bit.
The county by county mix of suckler and dairy cows has also changed in Northern Ireland (NI), although there have not been any dramatic shifts in numbers in the last 10 years.
Unlike southern counterparts, NI dairy farmers were not constrained by milk quotas in recent years, so the end of EU milk quota regime in 2015 had no impact in NI. Some beef farms have switched to dairy, but that has failed to keep pace with the number of dairy farmers retiring from the sector. As a result, there are fewer dairy farms in NI than 10 years ago.
Those that remain are getting larger, with average herd size approaching 100 cows. Dairy cow numbers are up 10% since 2010, with 313,283 recorded in the last census figures from June 2020.
The three counties of Down, Tyrone and Antrim each have over 70,000 cows, and together account for over 70% of the total dairy herd. Fermanagh has the lowest number at 22,142.
Over the same 10-year period, suckler numbers are down 5%. Tyrone has the most at 57,295 followed by Antrim at 46,395, with Down and Fermanagh both around the 40,000 mark. Derry and Armagh both have just under 30,000.
However, the big change in suckler numbers was driven by the end of headage-based payments in the early 2000s. Compared to 2000, NI now has 23% less suckler cows.
Total cattle numbers are down by 65,000 over the same period.
- David Wright