Suckler calf registrations plummet to lowest level in 7 years

The number of calves registered to beef cows – suckler calf registrations in other words – has plummeted to a seven-year low.

Figures from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) show that some 138,738 calves had been registered to beef cows up to the week ending March 9 this year. When compared to the previous six-year average, that’s a reduction of 19,319 head or a staggering 12%.

Beef calf registrations (March). Data source: ICBF

However, it must be noted that 2018’s suckler calf registrations are only back marginally when compared to the corresponding period in 2017 – down by 4,915 head or 3.5%. In fact, the largest drop in suckler birth recordings occurred between March 2016 and March 2017, when registrations declined by 19,748 head.

On the other hand, the number of calves registered to dairy dams has reached a seven-year high and are up by 22,796 head or 3.4% on the corresponding period in 2017. Furthermore, dairy calf registrations are up by a massive 267,421 head on the same period in 2012.

Dairy calf registrations (March). Data source: ICBF

How are suckler cow numbers faring?

Official figures obtained by AgriLand show that some 870,567 suckler cows were present in Ireland on December 31, 2017. These animals are defined as beef / beef cross females aged more than or equal to 18 months as of December 31 and registered as the dam of a calf born in the profile year.

Interestingly, when the number of cows present on Irish farms last December is compared to the previous seven-year average, cow numbers have declined – on average – by 51,877 head or 5.6%.

When we look at the data in more detail, the Irish suckler herd declined by 28,225 head (3.1%) between December 2016 and December 2017; a further drop was also witnessed between December 2015 and December 2016, when the national suckler herd fell by 17,447 head (1.9%).

In addition, the total suckler herd population appears to have steadily fluctuated up and down between 2010 and 2015.

Data source: Department of Agriculutre

Between December 2010 and December 2011, the herd size increased by almost 35,000; between 2011 and 2012, it increased by 50,000; between 2012 and 2013, it decreased by 110,000; between 2013 and 2014, it dropped by just 300 head; and between 2014 and 2015, the national herd jumped by approximately 25,000 head.

The 5.6% decline (2017 versus previous seven-year average) comes on the back of vast expansion in the country’s dairy sector – particularly after the removal of milk quotas in 2015.

According to Teagasc, within the same period, the dairy cow herd has ballooned from just over one million dairy cows in 2010 to in the region of 1.4 million dairy cows in 2017 – representing an increase of approximately 350,000 cows.

New beef herd numbers buck the trend

Despite the negativity surrounding the future of the suckler cow in some quarters, new entrants to beef and suckler farming made up the vast majority of the 10,604 new herd registrations (herd numbers) obtained between 2010 and 2017.

New entrants to suckler farming made up 18.1% (1,918) of the total and new entrants to beef farming accounted for 75.7% or 8,028 of the obtained new herd registrations, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Interestingly, there have been no sharp increases in dairy registrations – in spite of the quota abolition – with newly-registered entrants ranging between 21 and 34 per year over the past eight years.

It should be remembered that these figures do not take into account farmers who already had herd numbers switching sectors. It does include, however, farmers with no prior herd number, such as tillage and sheep farmers.

New herd registrations. Data source: Department of Agriculture