Our 22-year-old beef contributor - Jamie Hayes - shares his views on the Irish beef suckler sector.
The beef sector at the moment is in a worrying state. As a young farmer, I try to have a positive outlook on life but at the moment and especially with the hard year that’s just passed, it's hard to see any positivity for the beef industry going into the future.
With a lot of suckler farmers either getting out altogether and switching enterprise or reducing cow numbers and carving out another career path, the beef industry is on a downhill slope.
It’s hard to blame those people, with prices plummeting in the last year and the way the climate is gone; it’s difficult to know what is normal weather anymore.
In my own view, I think beef farming is becoming more of a hobby than a way of making a living, for a lot of people these days. It’s something to do in the evenings and weekends; it keeps people interested in rural life and it gives children a chance to see how nature takes its course. For a lot of people, it’s an interest more than a career.
If this continues these farms will run themselves to the ground whereby it will become a cash-sucking hobby that will no longer be justifiable to the farmer.
If this downward hill continues and is allowed to go on, it will have massive implications for rural Ireland. A lot of the young people will head to larger towns and cities in search of a better, more financially secure life.
This will mean a lot of local villages will start demising, local shops will find it difficult to continue, land where suckler herds once occupied will get neglected and certain areas, especially in the west of Ireland, will become desert-like and obscene.
All the hustle and bustle of cattle trucks delivering cattle to factories will become more of a distant memory than an unusual sight on our country roads.
My point is that with the disappearance of the Irish beef industry and especially the Suckler herd, it doesn’t just affect the farmer and their family but it also has a knock-on effect for the local community and especially rural Ireland which along with the Suckler industry, this present government has no interest in, in my view.
Beef Plan Group
There are many farm organisations out there that have campaigned for change within the Suckler industry in Ireland and many have fallen quiet after getting nowhere, except the newly formed Beef Plan Group.
Their targets and plans seem ambitious but out of all the farm organisations out there, they for sure are going for it and giving it their all.
As long as they can get the numbers behind them, I can’t see why they can’t make a change. The one thing about them that I can see different from any other organisation is that the leaders of this group are ordinary beef farmers that genuinely want to make a change for the better in beef farming.
They are not interested in a lump sum payment for campaigning for us beef farmers on the ground; their view is to change the way our sector is treated and by making it a more profitable system for everyone.
This is why I would encourage every farmer to become members of this group, as people say there is power in numbers.
Suckler cow subsidy
The proposal for a €200 per cow subsidy is an interesting one. In my own view, is there much point in handing a farmer money at one end of the scales when the real underlying problem is at the other end of the scales?
I feel it would be more in the Government’s line and especially Minister Creed’s to sit down with the factories and come to some conclusion whereby the beef farmer can get a fair price.
From my own experience, €200 won’t take you far in a year with a suckler cow. Yes, €200/cow handed to me would be great but if I send an animal to the factory and with the way prices are at the moment, it could be back up to €300/head meaning that I still have €100 to find somewhere.
I believe that if we could sort out the way the factories operate and by how they set their price and like the Beef Plan’s proposal have a minimum price per kg that can be offered, I think it would be a lot more beneficial for beef farmers than getting money handed to them by the government.
Yes, the Government needs to intervene and make changes but by pumping money - like a subsidy into a system that clearly isn’t working - won’t fix anything soon.
That’s why I think the Government need to listen to the farmers at ground level and take on board the points that are being made. What surprises me is that Minister Creed is a farmer himself from a suckling area and it seems as if he hasn’t a notion what’s going on at a local level.
Is he turning away from an industry that is clearly struggling and he knows presents a challenge for him to get it back? Or would rather push ahead with a booming dairy industry that would cause him the least amount of headaches to support?
As many of you know, we run a suckler herd here at home where we take all our progeny to slaughter.
Over the last year, it has been difficult between the bad spring and the summer drought. On top of all this, the factory prices are at rock bottom.
On Monday and Tuesday, we sent a total of 22 bullocks to the factory and had to take a base price of €3.75/kg in comparison to a base price of €4.15 in 2017. We tried to get these cattle slaughtered before Christmas but couldn’t get them in; it will be interesting to see if they went over fat and will penalties arise from this.
Only for the contracting business that my father runs, we simply wouldn’t be Suckler farming. There has always been the idea of changing the enterprise to dairy but I have recently taken a job and we will wait for another few years to see how things go.
The next step
With Brexit looming, it is hard to see what will happen the agriculture industry in Ireland more so the beef industry than any.
It could either be another mountain to climb or it could pave the way to new markets for Irish beef. The latter is hard to see at the moment, but who knows as anything could happen. So for the moment, we will remain in the suckler sector although it’s a challenging time and the beef industry is at major crossroads.
There are only two ways it can go - it can either get better or get worse and finish the whole lot. Hopefully, it will improve and prices can get back up to where they need to be.
As a young farmer, I would be optimistic for the future but wary at the same time as beef is very volatile; there is nothing or no one controlling what the factories can do. We’re basically at their mercy but things can be changed with the power of people.
I feel farmers also need to diversify a little. Just because what they have been doing for the last 40 years isn’t working now doesn’t mean they should throw in the towel. They just need to change a little and take a look at what they’re doing and maybe with a little change things can get better.
Overall I feel beef farming in Ireland is in a challenging place but things will turn around and it will get better and hopefully, beef will get back to where it was.