Beef focus: ‘There’s no point putting cattle up the ramp and saying I’ve lost money there’
Farming in Manusflynn, Caherlistrane, Co. Galway, PJ Conneely and his son Sean run a 70-cow suckler-to-weanling enterprise in conjunction with a sheep operation. PJ runs a flock of approximately 150 ewes, while Sean runs a flock of 200 ewes on leased land.
PJ purchased his farm in 1994 having previously worked for 20 years in the computer industry – mainly in the technical and marketing divisions.
Unhappy and saddened by the direction that the drystock sector has taken in terms of a financial return, PJ is not one to just give up and accept defeat. One word that springs to mind when you sit down with PJ is passion.
He outlined that there is an unfairness and imbalance of other players in the chain that brings Irish grass-fed beef to the consumer’s table.
“The whole livestock sector requires reforming; it’s limping from one crisis to the next. The combination of these challenges and shortfalls jeopardise the possibility of a positive outcome for farmers without radical reform.
“To survive going forward in this sector, every family farm requiring full-time management must be ran as a business, giving a sufficient return for these families to meet basic family needs.”
He also pointed out that we are now at a point where the farmer gets 20% of the consumer price and that the processor and retailer receive 30% and 50% respectively.
“This is an unsustainable model for the survival of the drystock sector. Obviously, because of farm size, some family farms will require an off-farm income.
That in no way means that these farms should not make a profit for the farmer or family members who help with the workload.
“There is no point putting cattle up the ramp of a lorry, watch them leave the yard and think to myself: I’ve lost money on those animals,” the Galway man explained.
Many farmers believe that when the cattle supply situation gets tight, factory feedlots start rolling out their stock so as to keep the price paid to the farmer low.
“In essence, these factory feedlots are solely used as a price-controlling mechanism. This is having a devastating effect and contributes greatly to having producers only receiving 20% of the consumer price.”
While some have called for an outright ban on the feedlots, others have called for better controls when it comes to these operations. PJ believes that these feedlots are detrimental to the price of beef and Ireland’s image of grass-fed beef.
“Questions are being asked by farmers as to the appropriateness of meat factories owning feedlots. They are the biggest competition for family-farmed, grass-fed beef; this is a serious problem.”
So, I asked PJ, where does he think the solution lies with regard to making this sector profitable and worthwhile and – broadly speaking – PJ categorises the changes needed under a handful of headings.
Commenting on the work of Teagasc, he said: “Teagasc must highlight and communicate to the Department of Agriculture and the minister the unacceptable low prices farmers receive and the consequences that lie ahead if swift action is not taken to make this sector worthwhile.
The research suckler cow project undertaken by Teagasc and Dawn Meats at the Athenry research farm – having at their disposal access to prime land, expert advice and efficient management – returned a financial loss / ha in 2017.
“This suckler cow project highlights that, while striving to improve efficiency at farm level, the product offered must cover the cost of production plus a margin to have a sustainable business going forward.”
Continuing, he said: “Bord Bia is responsible for two diverse functions – Quality Assurance (QA) and promotions. Currently, Bord Bia’s quality assurance programme within the meat plants fails on traceability.
“The animal tag number – which records its life-cycle from date of birth and movement in-between – has to remain central and linked to any meat parcel number, right up to the shipping bay in any meat processing plant; this is not happening,” he says.
PJ believes that what is required is a complete marketing function that puts the product and producer centre stage, so that a premium price can be obtained for the product, which is grass-fed meat.
“We need to promote the green image of Ireland so that Irish grass / grass silage-fed meat – similar to the Kerry group product range – becomes the benchmark for the competition in retail outlets throughout Europe and abroad. Today, this is not happening.
“The link between the tag identifier number of the animals and subsequent parcel numbers is non-existent to the detriment of the grass fed / grass silage farming system,” he added.
Monopoly regarding waste offal and fallen animals
The Galway-based farmer stressed that the waste offal collection for virtually all meat processing plants in Ireland and indeed fallen animal collections is owned by one major meat processing company.
This – PJ says – is completely wrong. He said: “Smaller processors who rely on regular waste offal collections can have a prolonged delay with their offal collection – particularly where a higher €/kg is on offer to that of the main player or players.
Competition is urgently required in the rendering business, as this monopoly situation is another major reason for keeping farm gate prices at such low levels.
Regarding the fifth quarter offal and trim that is saleable, he questions why no monetary value is returned to the farmer when, in effect, it is recognised that the value of these products to the processor actually covers the cost of processing of the animal.
Environmental and price support schemes
The Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) is an agricultural scheme which was launched by the Department of Agriculture in May 2015. The scheme, which will run until 2020, is designed to improve the genetic merit of suckler herds and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the Irish beef herd.
The Beef Environmental Efficiency Pilot (BEEP) was announced in the budget earlier this year and, under the scheme, farmers will receive a payment of up to €40/cow for collecting weight data on cows and calves.
“Sadly, the drystock sectors are existing through participation in these various schemes. They are support schemes, but now are the primary source of income for many drystock farmers.”
PJ questioned: “Can we get extra benefits apart from financial for participating in these schemes?”
He highlighted that one major benefit going forward with the genomic test data would be the opportunity to conduct random sampling and testing at the meat factory shipping bay to verify credibility of the trace.
“Much more historical data was available on dairy cow breeding than on the continental side. This – in turn – resulted in higher star ratings – 4-star and 5-star cows in favour of the dairy gene, which has resulted in poorer-quality weanlings being presented for sale.
“This forced many farmers in the suckler cow scheme – in order to meet the suckler requirements – to cull lower star-rating cows, which often produced the better weanling.
“The subjective data collection such as animal docility and calving ease should never be included as part of the star make up.” He questioned its value in the future.
Regarding BEEP, he said: “Why is ICBF yet again involved? Why do we need to carry out additional weighing of both dame and progeny? Is this just another case of jobs for the boys?”
Supermac’s Pat McDonagh
PJ recalled a recent conversation he had with Supermac’s boss Pat McDonagh.
“I’ve spoken to Pat on numerous occasions regarding an increase he was asked to pay to the meat processor for his meat. This amounted to an additional 7c for a 5oz burger, which – when calculated – realised a 50c/kg increase.
“Pat questioned the increase and wondered how much of this increase would be passed back to the producer and is well aware of the problems the drystock sector is having in carving out a living from their businesses.
If, for example, half of this increase sought by the processor was passed back, it would increase the price from approximately 385c/kg to 410c/kg.
“If this were to happen, farm gate prices would become close to breakeven; Teagasc calculates the breakeven point to be approximately 420c/kg.
“Pat is willing to support and back farmers in their efforts to get a fair share of the consumer price,” he added.
The newly-formed Beef Group and its future
The new beef plan group has gathered momentum in recent weeks. It has one mission in mind – empowering farmers to demand a better price.
Commenting on the group, PJ said: “If you look at the 86-point plan that was recently put together, it all boils back to putting a good foundation under the industry again; the saving of the drystock sector going forward will result in a drastic reconfiguration of the current structure.
“Irish farm producers have got the environmental conditions, where animals can graze on lush green grass for most of the year and, during the remaining short period, have access to grass silage.
This unique feature – together with a marketing strategy – should makee Irish-produced meat the most sought after in Europe and beyond.
“If the new beef plan has anything to do with getting the drystock sector into an improved position, I’m all for it,” PJ said.
“There needs to be a shock and awe factor, that one day all this would be implemented and not let the factories have a choice.
“Let’s keep fighting for a better outcome. We owe it to the next generation of farmers coming up behind us.
“We should not allow a small number of people climb the rank to be Ireland’s richest on the back of the producer,” he concluded.