The Irish Farmers Journal has examined the national kill for the first six months of the years between 2014 and 2018 to assess what effect expansion of the dairy herd was having on the quality of cattle killed in Irish beef factories.
There could be a debate on what criteria should be used to assess quality, but this exercise concentrates on the shape and fat cover of cattle going through the main beef processing factories in the country for the first six months of the last five years.
Using the grid qualification criteria for the 12c/kg in-spec bonus, which is for cattle conformation O= and U+ with fat cover between 2+ and 4=.
The national average, calculated on the kill across 25 Irish beef processing factories, has declined from 66.9% to 62.6% for steers and from 77.2% to 74.7% for heifers.
This is the overall impact of dairy herd expansion based on cattle killed in the first six months of the year between 2014 and 2018, but there is a huge difference between factories.
Biggest drop at Dawn factories
Some movement on cattle grades is to be expected from year to year but analysis over a five-year period reveals an overall trend. Dawn factories show the biggest decline, a number have a smaller decline in line with the national average and there are factories where the grades have improved.
Also, we have to keep in mind that in factories with a lower cattle kill, a much smaller number cattle will be needed to change the overall average of grades.
As the table illustrates, the biggest fall in grades that attract the in-spec bonus has taken place at Dawn meats factories.
Of their five locations, falls of in-spec grading cattle have taken place at four on steers of between 11% and 20%, with one, Dawn Charleville showing a small improvement of just over 1%.
The national average decline on steer grades over this period was 4.3%.On heifers, in-spec grades at Dawn have fallen by between just under 4% and 12% across each of the factories, with the national average decline on heifers being 2.5%.
It is surprising that the grades of steers killed in the Charleville factory, a recognised dairying area were 9% better than in Ballyhaunis, a renowned area for good grading suckler beef.
The type of cattle more typically associated with the area are better reflected in the grades on heifers in Ballyhaunis in 2018 where over 80% were within the in-spec grades, compared with just over 51% on steers. It appears that this factory has a policy of sourcing plainer steers as this doesn’t reflect grades of steers associated with the area.
Analysis of grades at the ABP factories reveals that ABP Bandon had a dramatic fall in in-spec grades over the period examined.
For steers, the fall was from 59% to 47% and heifer grades in Bandon also fell from 70% to 57% over the same period. Elsewhere in the ABP group there was a big increase for in-spec steers from 61% to 71% at the Nenagh factory and a smaller increase from 78% to 82% at ABP Clones. Slaney, now very much intertwined in the ABP group, showed an increase in heifer grades of 6%.
The Kepak factories have been mainly in line with the national average, with the Clonee factory showing the biggest fall in grades on heifers of 9% though this was on a high starting point of 85% being in-spec. Its Kilbeggan factory showed an increase of 9% on in-spec steers to almost 73% hitting the target.
The Liffey factories were among the top performers for the best grading cattle and Kildare, Moy Valley and Eurofarm were all fairly consistent.
Despite the need for caution when assessing averages, examination of cattle grades at Irish factories reveals priority when buying cattle.
The change by some farmers to dairying will have a local influence on the type of cattle coming forward in individual locations.
Similarly, the type of business developed by companies will also influence the type of cattle they buy and in the case of Dawn, the McDonald’s burger business means grades aren’t as important as they are for retail and steak meat markets.
It is also notable that factories that buy heavier cattle tend to have more in the higher quality grades.