‘Beef price must be addressed urgently’

“Truthfully, I don’t believe there will be a future for suckling if the beef price is not addressed.” That’s the view of the young Cavan farmer behind last week’s Ireland’s Farmers’ Twitter account.

Sarah Armstrong is carrying on a proud tradition by working the land alongside her parents and twin sisters, 17 year-old Amy and Jacqueline. Sarah was only 14 years-of-age when she first curated the Ireland’s Farmers’ account.

I’ve had an interest in farming from a very young age. I knew it was a sector I wanted to be a part of in the future and I’m very lucky that my parents and grandparents encouraged my involvement in the farm.

“The account was only in its teething stages at that time and I was kindly asked by Lorna Sixsmith to curate it. I think I may have only joined Twitter a few months at that stage. There’s been hundreds of other farmers since,” said Sarah.

Fourth generation

“My sisters and I will be the fourth generation to take on the farm at home. My great grandad moved to Cavan from Leitrim in the 1900s and we’ve been farming here since then.

“The main enterprise on the farm was dairy until 2008 when we moved to suckling. We have around 50 suckler cows now which also includes pedigree Limousin, Charolais and Herefords.

My grandfather would have been well known in his time for pedigree Herefords but they were sold out in 2000. We re-established the herd in 2017. I gained my passion for pedigrees from my grandfather which led me to establish my own pedigree herd of Limousins and Charolais in 2015/2016.

“My grandfather always brought me around the farm with him and I always had jobs when I was younger. My mother would recall me dropping the nuts once when feeding suckler calves and my grandfather having to pick up after me. He always encouraged me to be involved in the farm and founded my love for the job today,” she said.

“If I wasn’t studying in agriculture or working in the agri sector, I would probably be a guard. It was a job I always wanted to do when I was younger before setting my heart on agriculture instead,” said Sarah, who is just finished first year in her agriculture course which is run at Dundalk Institute of Technology (DkIT) in conjunction with Ballyhaise Agriculture College.

Beef price needs to be addressed

Now 19, she has pinpointed many issues that she believes need to be addressed.

“I have definitely become more involved in the farm and more aware of the finances behind it. Truthfully, I don’t believe there will be a future for suckling if the beef price is not addressed. If a shop is struggling to make money and stay afloat it will close; same goes for beef farming. Farmers don’t get a fair share for the work they put into the produce.

A farmer with 30 suckler cows cannot be expected to build a parlour and milk 100 cows to make a living. While everyone has the option of a loan to complete such tasks, many other things need to be considered such as new calf sheds, more calving pens, cubicles, more land, etc.

“A lot of beef farmers are part-time, so dairying is not an option. It’s very hard to make a profit beef farming if the price received is not a fair one. It’s an issue that needs to be addressed, and addressed soon,” she stated.

“My grandad bred pedigree Shorthorns, Herefords and Simmentals, but by the time I became involved on the farm we no longer had them.

“It was always something I wanted to do so in 2015 I purchased my first pedigree Limousin heifer and have been breeding pedigrees ever since. I have my own herd as well as my dad having a herd,” Sarah said.

Tougher for pedigree breeders

“In recent times it’s definitely been tougher for pedigree breeders as well as other beef farmers as the price received for bulls has decreased.

“A lot of dairy farmers have moved away from continental-type bulls in favour of more traditional or dairy-bred bulls. With the beef price poor, suckler farmers are reluctant to spend a lot of money on a bull which has led to a lot of bulls being left not sold at sales,” she said.

“The Limousin Society has introduced a short gestation programme in the hope of producing more bulls which are shorter gestation and would be suitable for dairy farmers. The Charolais Society is also encouraging the use of easy-calving Charolais in the dairy herd,” said Sarah.

Technology and social media

Technology and social media are now having a big impact on farming, she said.

“Technology is playing a huge part in farming and will do so into the future. It is helping to improve the efficiency of farming when it comes to so many things like grass growth, fertiliser spreading, milking cows and growing crops,” she said.

Social media, Sarah contended, has its advantages and disadvantages when it comes to agriculture.

“I have gotten to know so many farmers through my Twitter page and through my Instagram. It really is a supportive community and a great way to learn what other farmers are doing when dosing, calving and spraying.

“While it is beneficial in the fact that it can help with rural isolation, learning from other farmers here and abroad, it can also lead to negativity. This negativity coming mainly from animal activists. Many vegans chose not to eat meat which is perfectly fine and will never target farmers or post false information online.

However, there are a certain few who will take images from farmers’ social media and post them online alongside false information. This false information can put many farmers in a negative light.

“Necessary tasks such as shearing sheep or AI-ing a cow can be labelled as abuse. I know plenty of farmers who have received abuse from vegans online but the best thing to do is just block them. As I have mentioned, not all vegans are like this, just a select few.”

Rural isolation is, Sarah said, an issue for some farmers.

“I am lucky that I am not rurally isolated and have a lot of close neighbours but I know it is an issue elsewhere. The use of social media is definitely something which has helped to combat this issue.

“As broadband services continue to be improved throughout rural Ireland, I do believe it will help to alleviate this isolation. For elderly farmers who may not be on social media, the mart is a hotspot for getting out and about and chatting to others,” she said.

How other farms operate abroad

Sarah has enjoyed the opportunity to travel.

“I have been to both Canada and France and hope to travel to New Zealand and Australia in the future. I found in both countries a lot of emphasis was put on fertility and maternal traits.

“In Canada, herds of over 400 Charolais cows calve outside unassisted, with a few rarely needing help, something I would find hard to imagine here. Nearly all breeds are polled there, something I think Irish herds are leaning towards but will be years from achieving the same as Canada.

France is where most of the popular breeds in Ireland originated from, so it was interesting to see their females compared to ours. In the pedigrees, I do believe we have lost a lot of the breeds’ maternal traits as well as fertility. Too much emphasis has been put on breeding muscly heifers for shows which inevitably do not perform well when out of the ring.

Sarah is keeping an open mind on what she would like to focus on when she finishes college.

“I would like to complete a master’s degree and possibly even a PhD. I have an interest in genetics so that is definitely a possible route. I would like to travel more and see how other farms operate abroad and maybe work there for a while. I’d like to also have my own herd at home as I could never imagine myself not having cattle.”

Meanwhile, this young Cavan woman who is passionate about farming will continue to highlight the pressing issues in the sector that she believes need to be addressed sooner rather than later.