The newly formed Beef Plan Movement has caused a stir in almost every county, with membership claimed to be growing at a rate of 1,500 farmers/week across various communication platforms.
The group uses two main forms of communication – the Whatsapp and Telegram apps on smartphones. More than 5,000 farmers have signed up to the group, with highest numbers in Galway, Mayo, Cavan and Roscommon.
Co Meath beef farmer Eamon Corley is the brains behind the group. He has been working for three months with a group of farmers around the country on the 18-page beef plan.
He was Meath IFA livestock chair up until last week when he resigned. The document identifies 86 points to be addressed, and more points may be added. The group met last week and elected a 37-person national livestock committee. It has contacts in every county and, after a round of public meetings, hopes to have an eight- to 10-person committee in charge of each county. Details of the beef plan and points of contact are available at www.beefplan.ie. Here, Eamon Corley and Hugh Doyle answer some questions on the movement:
How did the movement come about?
This Beef Plan Movement is a completely independent group. The beef plan belongs to us and will be implemented by us. Any organisation that decides to back this plan will only be accepted on a no-strings-attached basis. Its setup has been in response to the increasing stranglehold factories and supermarket multiples have on our beef industry. At the moment we are a friendly society and it hasn’t been considered about moving to farm organisation status.
The group has tapped into funding from the Department of Communications to train farmers on smartphone use. We have a membership fee of €10 per farmer to pay for stationary, hotel hire and group administration expenses.
Who is on board?
Groups that have come on board to back our plan so far are: The Irish Charolais Cattle Society, The Parthenaise Cattle Society, The Blonde d’Aquitaine Cattle Society and the ICSA. The IFA has not yet confirmed if it will back the plan or not. It has said the Beef Plan Movement “is broadly in line with IFA livestock policy”. We are also waiting for the other breed societies to get back to us. This isn’t about organisations having a go at each other, it’s about beef farmers on the ground effecting change.
What would you call success and how will it be measured?
We want 40,000 farmers on board inside the next six to eight months. We want to give beef farmers a little bit of hope and help them restore pride in their business. We want to set up the structures and committees in every county to co-ordinate each county. We want to set up producer groups and purchasing groups in every county to put money back into farmer pockets.
Through purchasing groups we estimate there is up to €0.50/kg carcase weight in savings to be made and up to €0.20/kg carcase weight to be gained through participation in producer groups. At the end of it all we want to deliver a decent margin over cost of production.
The group is calling for increased scrutiny on the kill line of levels of carcase trim.
We want to establish a brand for Irish beef and we are looking to talk to supermarkets, Irish beef buyers and processors about this and developing a world-class brand for Irish beef like the dairy industry has done with Kerrygold. This brand would be concentrated on suckler-bred beef to highlight the high welfare standards and high quality of our suckler-bred animals. On the other side of the equation will be looking for the 12c QA payment to be allowed on cattle sold in marts without any retention period and the four movements rule to be scrapped. This will allow finished cattle to be sold in the marts.
We are also looking for the export regulations to be relaxed which will allow more cattle to be exported. We are planning that some of the producer groups go the whole way to the farm plate through contracting out cattle slaughtering and marketing the beef ourselves. We are also pushing to have more small abattoirs opened.
We believe the educated consumer is willing to pay more for grass-fed Irish beef, a product that is world-renowned for its high health, high welfare and high eating quality. We feel enough isn’t being done to educate the consumer about those credentials.
CAP reform – Where does the group stand?
The current state of play where some parts of the country are claiming upwards of €100,000 per farm is unfair. We would be looking for a flattening and redistribution of payments to smaller suckler farmers who are under extreme pressure. The most important thing is that the next CAP is targeted at active farmers. The current system where landowners are getting huge land rents along with entitlements is completely unfair and discriminates against the farmer working on the ground. At best we will retain the same pot of money and at worst there will be a 5% reduction so it makes our programme for action even more important.
When will the first text go out to hold cattle?
We’re not going to jump the gun on this one. People before us have organised protests without having huge numbers of people behind them and they haven’t had an impact. We are assembling the army at the moment and we will take action when we have enough numbers behind us.
Before you go to war, you need an army. Holding cattle from slaughter isn’t the first action – factories will be sent a list of fair demands first and depending on the response, we will decide on the next course of cattle but it could involve holding back action until we get some meaningful change.
If we get 40,000 farmers on board, we would be targeting to withhold 30% to 40% of the weekly cattle kill
If farmers continue to take €3.70/kg for their suckler beef, they will go out of business so this is a last stand. We will target this action at times of the year when cattle are scarce to get the maximum disruption in factories. It will be next April or May at the earliest before we escalate to this level. We have a number of big feeders finishing up to 1,500 cattle a year signed up so we will have the numbers to hit the weekly kill.
What do you expect the kill to drop by?
If we get 40,000 farmers on board, we would be targeting to withhold 30% to 40% of the weekly cattle kill. There is going to be pain in this for farmers but it will take some pain to achieve meaningful change. We want to create a level playing field for farmers where they know where they stand. Every factory has different criteria, weight limits, payment structures and these target the weak seller and manipulate the small producer. We want to give this small producer a voice and increase their selling power.
What’s your position on live exports to NI?
We want to get the live export trade to Northern Ireland reinstated and feel that’s an important change that needs to happen to restore confidence in the weanling and store cattle trade in the west. The current state of play where cattle can go directly to NI for slaughter is fine but that they can’t go to NI for further feeding is very unfair. It’s hard to see how this isn’t another market manipulation by factories to make sure they get more cattle into their net.
Do you support the calls for a €200 suckler cow payment?
Look, while we agree with it in principle, we would rather that farmers get paid for their stock through the market. The chances are that if the Government brought in a suckler cow payment it would be gobbled up by the factories in reduced prices. Maybe less is more and we need suckler cow numbers to drop to get a price lift in the product we are producing.
What are the top five issues you want to address in the next 12 months?
1 Changes to the AIMS database access
This has to be addressed. The current system where factories have access to the Department’s animal identification and movements system is a farce. If factories were selling a container load of beef within one month of its expiry date and their customers knew it, of course their customers would try and buy it at a discounted rate.
Factories buying cattle coming close to 16 months or 30 months is no different. It’s anticompetitive to have factories with so much information that translates into power to manipulate the weaker seller.
2 Movement issues with QA
The current situation where finished animals lose out on quality assurance if sold through the mart is a major disadvantage and again, it plays into the factories’ hands. For many smaller producers it would make perfect sense for them to sell their finished cattle through their local mart and allow factory agents bid for them. This would be a lot fairer than the current system of factories talking down the price all of the time.
3 Level of factory trim
There are huge discrepancies in the levels of carcase trim between Irish factories and even day-to-day in the same factories. We have heard of flanks being torn, spines being broken, excess fat being trimmed and necks being cut short, all negatively affecting grading and farmers’ pockets.
The Department of Agriculture needs to get tough on this.
The level of inspections isn’t good enough and we would be proposing to train farmers to be in a position to have our people on the line monitoring the trim level between the hide puller and the grading machine.
4 Purchasing group set up
We aim to set purchasing groups up in every county in the coming months to harness the buying power of a collective group rather than all working against each other.
5 Producer group set up
Producer groups will be set up in each county where farmers pool cattle together to get the best price on a weekly basis
Beef plan points examples
8. “That a suckler-bred bonus be introduced that reflects the extra production costs of the suckler-bred animal over the dairy-bred animal.”
9. “Guaranteed minimum prices should be made available by the factories to all farmers ahead of high-risk finishing periods such as winter finishing.”
13. “Steers and heifers under 36 months should be paid the QA bonus as there is no good reason regarding quality as to why they should be excluded.”
23. Bulls over 24 months and under 30 months get a price no more than 10c behind the price of under-24-month bulls.”
42. Consult with Bord Bia and ask them why €6m of farmers’ money is being spent to benefit factories.”
47. We aim for a target of 50% of the countriy’s beef cattle to be sold through producer groups in the next three years.
67. “Where a farmer’s only use of Teagasc is for a KT scheme, the €500 per farmer that Teagasc get from the EU should be enough without the farmer having to pay more.”
82. “That all our key farm union representatives should have their performances reviewed by an appointed panel of people with expertise in the area of assessment and productive employment. Where our key farm union representatives are deemed to have underperformed by this appointed panel these key farm union representatives are then replaced.”
86. A working group be put together as part of a longer term plan with the objective of leasing or buying an existing abattoir which would be run by a farmer cooperative. With the attractive grants that are available this working group should also look at the possibility of building an abattoir.”
The group seems to be well organised and has garnered good support around the country. It is appealing to farmers who are frustrated with the low margins in beef farming and you have to commend it for its new style in communicating with farmers.
It has struck a chord with a large cohort of farmers, particularly in counties with high suckler numbers in the west. I believe having 86 points or areas to address is a weakness. Would farmers be better served to pick five points and put all their energy into addressing these in the initial stages of the plan?
The group has ambitious targets. Getting farmers to withdraw 40% of the kill won’t be an easy job and will take a huge amount of work and encouragement from the top table. We’ve seen factory protests before and apart from venting anger and ticking boxes, nothing in the line of price rises ever took place.
The group’s plans for setting up purchasing groups and producer groups will also take a huge amount of work but it’s in this area where they could possibly make most progress. Corley and Doyle have a lot of experience in this area having been part of the Premier Irish Beef Producers group for 15 years and also part of local Meath purchasing groups. If farmers see savings, it will encourage them to row in behind the plan more and more.
We have seen huge savings being made from farmer participation in existing purchasing groups and producer groups. It’s important that the group doesn’t pit one farm organisation against the other. I’ve already heard comments from farmers wishing to criticise each other’s proposals.
A divided voice will be a weaker one. Maybe it’s a wake-up call for existing farm organisations. In a time of social media and online communication methods, the right people can assemble a strong voice of revolt with the swipe of a finger. If it can transform the passion and emotion we are seeing at the farmer meetings into people power, the movement will go places. The real test will come when the first text goes out to hold cattle, will farmers hold or will they sell?
Laois: Venue Ratheniska Hall Tuesday 20 November at 8pm.
Cavan: Venue Cavan Crystal Hotel Wed 21 November at 8.30pm.
Farmers wishing to participate in the new Beef Plan Movement should contact Eamon Corley at 086 222 8246