Plans for the beef sector must consider the decline in suckler-cow numbers, and protect this critical resource, national livestock chair of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Brendan Golden has said.

The sector should continue to produce beef from one of the most environmentally sustainable production systems in the world, based on Ireland’s suckler herd, according to the national livestock chair.

Addressing the Food Vision Beef and Sheep Group this week, Golden said Ireland’s €2.5bn beef sector is built on the production standards and image of the world-class beef produced on suckler farms.

However, less than 50% of beef animals are now coming from suckler herds, and cow numbers have fallen by 12% since 2018, which led to a reduction of over 20% in suckler beef production, Golden said.

He also told the Food Vision Beef and Sheep Group that it cannot be ignored that the beef sector, the largest farming enterprise in the country, is most affected by the impact of Brexit. Golden added:

“Our more productive suckler and beef farmers are most exposed to input price inflation and are hit hardest by the flawed Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), and reduced targeted support commitments from the government.”

The national livestock chair said there is a real opportunity for the government now to provide a funding package to support suckler and beef farmers, to ensure continued production at a time of real food-security and food-sovereignty concerns.

Emissions on suckler farms

Suckler farming is extremely vulnerable with average incomes of just over €10,000 per year, and direct payments contributing 130% of family farm income, Golden said. New investment on suckler farms fell by 27% from €6,121 in 2016 to €4,490 in 2020, he added.

“Suckler and beef farmers will play their part in climate action. Measures that are practical to implement; have the potential to add value on our farms; and contribute to the climate objective, will all be considered.

“But the level of ambition for the sector will be determined by the level of government and industry ambition to directly support farmers in the process. We do not have the economic capacity for extra investments or changes of practice on our farms,” Golden said.

Measures to benefit the environment include age at slaughter; genomic testing; animal health and targeted medicine usage; soil health and fertility; alternative crops; and support for generational renewal, he added.

However, the tools that can guarantee specific emissions reduction at a national level are not yet available or proven, according to the livestock chair.

“We cannot move faster than the science, technology and tools by setting arbitrary figures for the sector that have the potential to undermine food production, food security, food sovereignty and the economic viability of our rural towns and villages,” he said.