Opinion

Paying for cattle on the basis of meat yield is a road to nowhere

I couldn’t quite see where Irish Cattle and Sheep Association (ICSA) President Patrick Kent was coming from earlier this week in suggesting that cattle should be paid for in terms of meat yield only, as opposed to conformation and fat cover.

He then went on to assert that his proposed approach would benefit the Irish suckler beef sector.

But surely all the ‘R&D’ work carried out to date indicates that a Friesian bullock will produce as much saleable meat as a prime suckler-bred steer on a weight-for-weight basis.

So, in essence, the current pricing system operated by all of the factories favours the bespoke, beef-bred animal because of its inherently better shape.

I am all for supporting Ireland’s suckler beef sector. It has a proven track record in keeping production agriculture a way of life in myriad rural areas across the country.

The bolstering of prices paid for suckler-bred stock is much needed. But will it help prevent the haemorrhaging of suckler cows that is currently taking place in this country? I doubt it.

Beef, no matter how good its quality, is treated as a commodity product. And this reality places a ceiling on what the market can deliver.

EU Commissioner for Agriculture Phil Hogan has been talking about the need for greater transparency within the agri food chain and getting more money back to the primary producer for the last two years.

But, so far, we have seen no real action on the ground. And I sense this is because every member state within the EU is committed to a cheap food policy.

Moreover, the European supermarkets bring tremendous political influence to bear when it comes to them running their businesses.

They see give-away food prices as a core driver of footfall into their shops. And they are unlikely to change their view on the matter.

What’s really needed to maintain suckler beef production as a viable, mainstream production option in Ireland is a support package that really reflects the needs of those farmers involved within the sector and, what’s more, fully recognises the public good they engender.

And there are serious problems coming down the track, where this issue is concerned.

The UK’s departure from Europe will leave a real hole in the EU’s finances – with agriculture first in line to take the brunt of whatever fiscal deficit is created as a result.

The next review of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is just around the corner. So could I strongly suggest that the ICSA and the other farming organisations should be coming up with detailed proposals on how support measures for suckler beef production can be ring-fenced, or even increased?

If Brussels fails to move on this issue, its significance is so important for agri-food as a whole in this country that the scope to introduce bespoke national support measures should be demanded.

And, in all fairness to Patrick Kent, he’s usually pretty good at doing exactly that.

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