Comment: Beef residency may catch farmers out

Let’s hope that today’s meeting involving representatives of the marts and the farm lobby groups with representatives of the EU’s Competition Directorate will encourage Brussels to formally inquire into the buying practises of the meat plants here in Ireland.

In a week that has seen Meat Industry Ireland (MII) selectively publicise the raft of the classification criteria now being operated by the plants, it’s hard not to conclude that the processors want to significantly reduce the role of the marts as an outlet for cattle and the scope for farmers to use grazed grass as a fundamental feeding option, where finishing beef cattle is concerned.

Throw in the issue of cattle, effectively, losing their identity once they cross the border and one has to question the motive of the meat factories in this regard, most of whom operate large processing operations in both Irish jurisdictions, not to mention Britain.

Naturally, MII is denying, totally, that its members’ activities are having any impact at all on free trade, where cattle are concerned, and the cross border movement of cattle. And that organisation has every right to defend the position of the meat plant members. But, just consider the details of the beef classification criteria that have been clarified by MII over recent days: Steers must be farm quality assured, under 30 months and between 280 and 380kg carcass weight at time of slaughter. The equivalent figures for heifers and young bulls are 30 months: 270 to 380kg and 16 months: 280 to 380kg. Underpinning the criteria for each category of animal is a maximum of four residencies in its lifetime.

First off, the young bull classification measures destroy, completely, any hope that these animals can be killed off grass. And the same point could well be made for Holstein bullocks – of which there will be many thousands more coming through the system over the coming years. So, it’s hard not to conclude that these measures preferentially suit a feedlot approach to beef production.

But the issue of residency is the one that is waiting to catch farmers out in the long grass. MII is more than happy to confirm that Ireland is home to 100,000 beef farmers, the vast majority of whom will buy in and sell small numbers of young stock, to reflect the availability of grass and forage on its farms. But, the reality is that when the residency issue hit the headlines in Northern Ireland a few weeks ago, the plants had to admit that if a young animal – calf or weanling – was brought to a mart and then moved on to another  farm through a dealer, that animal would have notched up three residencies on the one day.

No doubt the plants in the Republic of Ireland have been taking a pretty relaxed view on the residency issue up to this point. However, if they decide to firm up their approach on this matter, the impact on the marts could be catastrophic.