Feedlot operations increase sixfold in 10 years across Ireland

The number of department-defined (restricted) feedlots – whereby stock moved only to slaughter – has increased sixfold across the country over the last 10 years, official figures reveal.

The figures, obtained from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, show that these feedlots – which operate under restrictions in accordance with Ireland’s Bovine TB Eradication Programme for 2017 and 2018 – have increased from 52 in 2008 to 338 in 2018.

The largest growth in such herds has occurred in counties: Kildare (0 in 2008 to 41 in 2018); Kilkenny (1 in 2008 to 19 in 2018); Laois (0 in 2008 to 43 in 2018); Meath (2 in 2008 to 42 in 2018); and Tipperary (18 in 2008 to 45 in 2018).

Department-defined (restricted) feedlots are now operational in all 26 counties; compared to operations in just 10 counties back in 2008.

Under the TB programme a feedlot herd comprises a ‘non-breeding’ unit which disposes of all cattle direct for slaughter and fulfills at least one of the following three criteria: cattle are permanently housed (never on pasture); there are no adjoining holdings/lands with cattle; boundaries are walled, double fenced or equivalent to prevent any direct contact with cattle on neighbouring lands/premises/holdings.

Although grass can be included in the diet, the department also clearly outlines that if intending to graze, the land must be secured so there can be no contact with other cattle on neighbouring farms.

Furthermore, the department outlined that there must be “no evidence” of the within-herd spread of TB – as such, a feedlot herd “poses minimal risk” of infecting other cattle because of effective isolation from other herds.

While farmers are fully entitled to operate such systems, some agri-focused politicians have claimed that the increase in beef produced in such enterprises could “pose a potential threat” to Ireland’s internationally-marketed, sustainable, grass-fed image.

‘Crux of problem’

Sinn Fein MEP, Matt Carthy, has voiced his concerns over the significant hike in department-defined feedlots (what are referred to here as factory-feeder herds). He cautions that consistent feedlot kills could have a “depressing” impact on beef prices.

However, the Midlands-North West representative stressed that he did not want to criticise herdowners involved in the running of such operations and highlighted the historic low levels of return on beef production in recent times.

“These farmers are not doing anything wrong and that is the crux of the problem.

The truth of the matter is farmers are looking for ways to earn a profit. And the underlying reason behind the feedlots – whether it is factories or private individuals operating them – is an effort to actually make a profit out of the production of beef.

Therein, he states, “the problem lies”.

Analysis

The extend of such feedlot growth was highlighted by this publication last month, when an analysis of Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine statistics revealed that an estimated 315,722 cattle – originating from department-defined restricted feedlots – were slaughtered at department-approved beef exporting plants up to and including the week ending December 16, 2018.

This figure represents approximately 18% of the total national beef kill up to and including that date.

A further examination of this figure shows that an average of 6,314 cattle from such operations were killed each week between January and December last year.

Department-defined (restricted) feedlots (i.e. those that meet the aforementioned criteria) could include factory-owned, factory-contracted (but privately-owned) or independent farmer-owned feedlot operations.

Reputation

Speaking to AgriLand, Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy described the findings as “stark” and he is urging the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, to tackle the “proliferation” of feedlots head on.

“In my mind these figures should ring alarm bells with the minister, the Department of Agriculture, Bord Bia and any other stakeholder that has a responsibility to promote Irish beef internationally.

We know that the beef sector is going through very challenging times and the one thing that we have always consistently had is our reputation.

“Even at times when we have dealt with BSE crises, Foot-and-Mouth outbreaks, we still managed to overcome all of those things on the basis of our grass-fed beef herds.

“To see a growing number of feedlots being used to produce beef, in my mind, presents a risk to our reputation which is the most valuable commodity that Irish beef farmers have,” he said, adding the growing trend also poses a significant threat to the country’s traditional family farm model.

Carthy also highlighted that the feedlot kill may be contributing to current beef price lows.

“Perhaps those feedlot figures explain the poor prices that farmers are receiving. There is no correlation between the amount of effort, the quality of food that is being produced and the prices that are being received.

Are factories using feedlots, in some instances, in order to depress prices?

Last week, independent TD for Roscommon Galway, Michael Fitzmaurice, also tabled his concerns on the issue at a meeting of the Joint Oireactas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

In a question to the committee, deputy Fitzmaurice stated: “Ireland is under a bit of pressure at the moment; we are aware that there are some outside people from other countries basically questioning how green we are in producing beef.

“Is it a concern of yours that there is probably 315,000 cattle being produced in feedlots and under the climate action are you looking at tackling that?” he asked.

The committee did not offer a response to the question during the session.

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