Opinion

Suckler sector needs ‘life support’ measures now

I hate to say I told you so. However, the recent report from the European Commission, predicting a 300,000 head fall-off in Irish suckler cow numbers, simply confirms a trend that anyone with a mere passing interest in this country’s beef industry could have worked out some time ago.

I am not sure if there is any formal link made between the commission’s predicted contraction in the suckler sector and the growth in dairy cow numbers that we have seen since the ending of milk quotas.

But, it’s fair to conclude that most of the farmers now getting out of suckler cows are of the view that dairy gives them the best chance of making a livelihood, both for themselves and the generations to come.

The reality is that suckling will always be an inherently inefficient business.

The one cow / one calf scenario, which underpins the sector, is hardly the best starting point one could ever have wished to consider if it was simply a case of determining how to put a farm’s resource to best use.

Had this been the only criterion upon which the viability of Irish suckling was assessed, the entire sector would have been relegated to the history books years ago.

But, as we all know, suckling is the backbone of Ireland’s beef industry. In effect, it is the real driver of quality within the red meat sector.

There is also ample evidence to show that suckler cows deliver so many environmental and conservation-related benefits in our hill and lowland areas.

In other words, they are a special case.

And this must be reflected in the support payments made available to the sector. Back in the day, this was the case courtesy of bona fide suckler cow headage payments. And, I firmly believe that this state of affairs must be brought back into play with immediate effect.

All of this is feasible, I believe, given the changes proposed within the recently published Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) White Paper.

Given the attractions which a career in dairy can now offer, it’s fair to assume that a fall-off in Irish suckler cow numbers is inevitable. But this reduction must be limited. And one way of doing this is to give those farmers who relish working with beef cows a viable shot at being able to do just that.

In regions across the EU, social reasons are used to justify the maintenance of farming enterprises that cannot be maintained in a purely commercial sense. It’s time that Irish suckling was treated in a similar manner.