It’s too early to jump on the Chinese beef bandwagon

Let’s face it, beef farming in Ireland has gone through a difficult spell and unfortunately, with the uncertainty of Brexit divorce proceedings looming, it looks likely to remain that way in the near future.

Cattle prices have lifted slowly in recent weeks, but for some finishers it has been a case of too little and too late.

Many winter finishers are now facing the real prospect of losing money on store cattle purchased during the autumn of 2016 and finished in the opening months of 2017.

And it’s not just one or two animals, as the combined steer, heifer and young bull kill for the first three months of the year stood at nearly 330,000 head.

Lest we forget that winter finishers are a vital cog in Ireland’s beef production chain – whether they specialise in black and white or suckler-bred finishing systems.

And if they lose confidence in the market next autumn, when it comes to filling sheds, it won’t paint a pretty picture for Irish store cattle prices.

Sustainability is a buzzword freely used when it comes to marketing Irish beef throughout the world, but one serious question needs to be asked.

Is beef farming truly sustainable when producers struggle to break even?

This brings me on to China and the potential, and I stress potential, the market has to offer to the Irish beef industry.

Last year, China was the second biggest beef importer in the world; it took 825,000t of beef.

In February 2015, to much fanfare, the Chinese market reopened for Irish beef. But, the final steps in the process of receiving clearance to ship Irish beef to China have yet to be completed.

Early yesterday, the Minster for Agriculture Michael Creed and his Chinese counterpart, Minister Zhi Shuping, who has responsibility for the Chinese Quarantine and Inspection Service, met in Dublin to sign a formal protocol on beef exports to China – seven months on from their last meeting in September.

This protocol is said to pave the way for Irish beef to access the Chinese market, but as of yet it still hasn’t put any Irish beef on a ship destined for direct export to China.

And if Irish beef exporters could secure even a small share of this market it could be beneficial at farm level, and there appears to be demand from Irish processors to do just that.

But, unfortunately, this won’t happen today or tomorrow as two more steps are required before Irish beef shipments can hit the high seas for China.

These include the finalisation of a veterinary health certificate with AQSIQ and an inspection visit by the Chinese Certification and Accreditation Administration (CNCA) to approve individual processing plants for export.

And Minster Creed’s stance was made clear yesterday, when he said: “I think we can safely say after this morning’s meeting that it is now a case of when – rather than if”.

The Minister added the he would be “disappointed if we didn’t have plant inspections in 2017”.

I have a funny feeling that the Minister won’t be alone in his thinking on this, as many finishers hope to find a ray of light in the market to give them the confidence they need to continue.

That ray of light may well be China but, after a 26-month wait, I won’t be jumping on the bandwagon just yet.