Farmers urged to know the value of their beef

Key figures in the Irish beef industry spoke with AgriLand at the National Ploughing Championships earlier this week.

The topics discussed included: beef prices; international markets; meat grading systems in processing plants; and the future of the suckler herd.

Speakers included: Angus Woods, IFA (Irish Farmers’ Association); Joe Burke, Bord Bia; and Henry O’Donnell, INHFA (Irish Natura and Hill Farmers Association) – along with John Lynskey, IFA National Sheep Chairman, who was present to discuss sheep matters.

Burke began by saying: “The beef sector is very important for the food industry in Ireland, with over 100,000 livestock farmers. There was a pessimistic view from farmers at the beginning of the year, with currency volatility creating uncertainty in the market.”

However, as the year progressed, currency volatility relaxed and some positives started to appear from the woodwork.

At the minute, base prices for steers and heifers are approximately 380c/kg and 390c/kg respectively; these prices are up on the same period last year and, in general, prices are averaging better on 2016 figures, he said.

Burke remained optimistic given the time of year; factories are still sourcing cattle and competing against one another to secure their weekly kill.

Bord Bia’s Beef and Livestock Sector Manager, Joe Burke

In relation to international markets, he outlined that there has been a 5% growth in the quantity of beef exported internationally. Countries like the Philippines, Hong Kong and Thailand have all received Irish beef (mainly forequarter and trimmings).

So far this year, 160,000 live cattle have been exported to countries such as Spain, Holland and Turkey – providing an alternative destination for Irish beef and, thus, creating competition among the processors.

These figures represent a 50% increase on the corresponding month last year.

On the topic of suckler farming, Burke admitted: “Ideally, prices should be higher to secure positive margins for suckler farmers who are under pressure.”

However, he concluded by saying the sector is in an overall better position than it was 12 months ago.

O’Donnell agreed that suckler farmers in Ireland are under pressure and need to be paid a premium price for their cattle; he felt there is definitely scope for a higher return.

He said: “Farmers really are price takers and are at the mercy of the processors.”

Burke outlined that the EUROP grading system has been around for a long time and needs review. He also commented on the QPS (Quality Payment System) – a system that allows farmers to be awarded for better-quality animals, while plainer cattle are penalised.

There are now 300,000 Angus calves and 230,000 Hereford calves registered every year – representing serious growth in response to growing market demand – schemes are paying more and farmers have responded to this.

Woods began by stating that 2017 is a totally different year to 2016. The amount of beef present in cold stores in processing plants is well down on this time last year.

Woods urged farmers to believe in the value of their beef. According to Woods, demand for beef is high.

He commented on the dairy cull that happened last year which saw prices reduced. This, he said, is not happening this year and, as a result, demand is high for all types of beef.

Woods believes that there has been a big increase in the value of manufacturing beef, as international markets continue to remain strong.

On the subject of suckler farming, Woods said that a coupled payment of up to €200/cow is needed. A suckler welfare scheme was vitally important and that the IFA is looking for €35 million in the budget for a “bolt on” welfare scheme.

Woods explained that the IFA wants farmers to produce quality beef that they will get rewarded for.

He said: “Farmers need to be assured that the grading system is working well. The IFA feels every processing plant should have an independent person on the ground, every day of the year, monitoring what is going on.”

On the subject of technology he aired caution. Not all new systems are accurate and he suggested that some changes to the existing systems would be a more measured solution.