Last week, scientists from the ICBF, the country’s breeding organisation, laid out the trends and expectations for the type of beef animal that would be produced in the next five years. Using data from the last 10 years, Andrew Cromie showed the significant turnaround in the makeup of the national herd to a more dairy beef animal.

Plotting the next 10 years, he suggested this dairy-beef shift will continue and there will be another 300,000 dairy-beef-bred calves born each year, to 900,000 from 600,000 per year presently. By dairy beef we mean an animal produced by using a beef sire on a black and white milking cow.

The estimates suggest suckler-bred calves will stabilise at around 650,000 per year and dairy-bred calves will again stabilise at around 700,000 each year. Key to achieving these numbers will be the use of sexed semen on dairy farms and better heat detection technology, meaning a shift away from stock bulls to more AI-only on dairy farms.

Talking to dairy farmers on these expectations and based on farmer actions, the ICBF predictions look solid. More beef is being used in the dairy herd, more technology is being used to help use more AI, and early maturing breeds are being used more than other breeds. The one big question remaining that is under discussion is how can the industry fund genotyping at birth (DNA calf registration) to ensure all farmers (beef and dairy) know exactly what they have and ensure all animals have a commercial beef value (CBV) at birth?

Thrive programme

Five years ago, with the above trends in mind, we set up a dairy-beef programme in conjunction with the AI stations (NCBC and Dovea), dairy co-ops (Kerry and Aurivo), Bord Bia, and the ICBF to see what margins and management could be achieved using the best calves we could get. All stock were managed on a grass-based system.

The Irish Farmers Journal set up a demonstration model farm in Tipperary and a host of monitor farms around the country. This week on pages Declan Marren profiles the full unadulterated detailed results of the fourth crop of animals to leave the demonstration farm. This is not a trial or research, but simply a gathering of the best dairy beef genetics managed very well with all information collected at each stage. Over 3,000 farmers came to see the stock in August.

We have seen the quality of AI sires improve over the four years but more improvement is needed. It certainly looks like dairy farmers are going to use more of this early maturing type of cattle – especially if age of slaughter is going to be a key measure advocated by the Food Vision Beef grouping.

In summary, the 2022 crop of heifers and bullocks delivered a carcase between 270kg and 300kg, attained a higher beef price of €4.94/kg, up from €4.34/kg in 2021, delivering a carcase value of €1,428. However, this was achieved at a higher cost to the farmer, leaving a net margin of €200 per head.

These results were achieved at an average age of slaughter of 20 months with no second wintering period.

The lessons are many. Challenges remain. None more important than farmer margin, the key focus of the IFA beef crisis meeting in Portlaoise on Tuesday night.

Teagasc suggests close to €6/kg is necessary for breakeven, processors say the market can’t deliver that. The farmer is expected to suck up the loss and commit resources for no return.

Tighter supplies are going to drive beef price over coming weeks, but all this does is camouflage paltry returns and string farmers along with little certainty and huge risk.

The current price tracker gap remains unaccounted for so farmers are losing out right now relative to market returns. Long term, the train has left the station as the trend in stock numbers described above highlights.

For the beef sector to survive, all sides need a plan with real numbers on the opportunities of change included (see panel below).

Time for the minister to front up

We have tracked the various Food Vision industry groupings in detail as they have deliberated over the last number of months.

Developments in the last week on the beef side show that the farm organisations are anything but happy with the outcomes as they near completion. We have one farm organisation pulling out. The others are suggesting they will stay inside, but not sign up to the outcomes. We understand bilateral meetings have now started. What does this say of the process or indeed the merits of any final report? Does the process merely become a box-ticking exercise for officials to show some empathy or understanding to the plight of farmers while driving a different agenda regardless? Who came up with the ideas in the report? If the farm organisations are not going to sign up to this report, then what merit is in the report? One of two things must happen – the minister must front up with funding to back the ideas in the report or else the farm organisations create their own report to be included within the Food Vision report.

Any worthwhile report must show the financial and environmental impact of any proposals alongside the impact of CAP policy and nitrates rules on the sector. Any report that doesn’t have farmer backing will lack the necessary credentials or hope of success in light of the upcoming Climate Action Plan announcements.

The minister knows this, so the ball is firmly in his court.