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.

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Map: how many suckler cows are in your county?

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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.

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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.

Audit

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.

UK not seeking beef trade war – Tánaiste
Tánaiste Simon Coveney said putting Ireland under pressure on beef to secure concessions on the backstop is not a tactic being adopted by the UK Government.

On Wednesday, Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers raised concerns in the Dáil that the exposure of the Irish beef sector to a hard Brexit was being used by the UK to twist Ireland’s arm on the backstop.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney denied this was the case saying: “There were some unfortunate headlines in the Irish media last week around trade wars on beef and using that sector as a way of putting pressure on the Irish.

“In response to those headlines, I got a call from my counterpart, the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Mr David Lidington MP, who was concerned about them and made it clear to me that they were not coming from the British government.

“I believe him. My relationship with him is good and we talk to each other in a very blunt and honest manner about all of these things.”

Frustrations

The Tánaiste admitted there were elements within Westminster that were frustrated by the backstop and wanted to see pressure being applied to Ireland. He added that equally there were comments made in Ireland about putting pressure on Westminster to get a deal done.

“That is the nature of politics when there is an impasse, but trying to put Ireland under pressure in terms of beef is not a tactic or official position being adopted by the British Government. It is a big issue, but one that we want to resolve together,” Coveney said.

He reiterated that the withdrawal agreement was not up for renegotiation. Instead, the EU and Ireland were “seeking ways to provide clarification and reassurance" to the British government.

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