Is the suckler cow herd really in decline?

Suckler cow numbers nationwide have declined by just 4% over the last seven years, according to official statistics obtained from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

The suckler cow figures – defined as a beef/beef cross female aged more than or equal to 18 months on December 31 of every year between 2010 and 2017 and registered as the dam of a calf born in the profile year – cast doubt over widespread speculation that the herd is facing rapid demise.

Farm organisations – including the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) and the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA) – have made repeated calls for a suckler subsidy of €200/cow to be introduced to protect the sector.

Various opposition TDs and rural representatives have also heaped pressure on agriculture minister Michael Creed to “take action” and “prioritise funding” in order to curtail the “future collapse of the sector”.

However, official statistics generated from the department’s Animal Identification and Movement system (AIM) indicate that the decline is not as severe as predicted.

In December 2010, the total number of suckler cows in Ireland was 911,104; on December 31, 2017, the figure stood at 870,567 – a drop of 40,537 or 4.4%.

Throughout the seven-year period, the total suckler herd population appears to have steadily fluctuated up and down.

Between December 31, 2010, and December 31, 2011, the herd size increased by almost 35,000; between 2011 and 2012, it increased by 50,000; between 2012 and 2013, it decreased by 10,000; between 2013 and 2014, it dropped by just 300 head; between 2014 and 2015, herd numbers increased by and estimated 25,000; between 2015 and 2016, it dropped by around 18,000; and between 2016 and 2017, suckler numbers fell by an estimated 28,000.

The 4% decline also comes on the back of vast expansion in the country’s dairy sector – particularly after the removal of milk quotas in 2015.

According to Teagasc, within the same seven-year time-frame, the dairy cow herd has ballooned from just over one million dairy cows in 2010 to in the region of 1.4 million dairy cows in 2017 – representing an increase of approximately 350,000 cows.

21 counties have experienced some decline

Since 2010, 21 counties have experienced some element of decline in suckler cow numbers – the range varies from the lowest drop of 183 head in Co. Clare, to the highest drop of 9,232 in Co. Cork.

Other noteworthy reductions have occurred in Co. Waterford (down 5,335), Co. Tipperary (down 6,976) and Co. Donegal (down 4,812).

Despite growing concerns that suckler cow numbers are dwindling the west, Co. Roscommon has lost just 323 suckler cows since 2010; Co. Leitrim is down 585 and Co. Sligo’s herd has shrunk by just 743.

Although figures in Co. Mayo have lessened by almost 1,900; the number of sucklers in Co. Galway has actually increased by 516.

In addition, suckler cow number have risen by more than 1,300 in Co. Kildare; while counties Wicklow, Monaghan and Dublin have also experienced a slight swell of up to 500 head.

Suckler defined as beef/beef cross female that was >= 18 months on December 31 and is registered as the Dam of a calf born in the profile year

Speaking in the Seanad today, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Michael Creed said a 30% reduction in suckler cow numbers had been anticipated when the milk quota regime ended on April 1, 2015.

It is understood that prior to the introduction of milk quotas back in the early 1980s; there were approximately 400,000 suckler cows in the country.

Today, Minister Creed strongly contended that since the end of milk quotas, suckler cow numbers have decreased by just 6% nationally.

“That drop is primarily driven by farmers who had a dairy operation and decided they would expand their dairy herd at the expense of their second enterprise.

“There hasn’t been – interestingly enough – a significant drop in suckler cow numbers along the western seaboard.

“We are supporting suckler cows very, very significantly under a programme called the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP). That is about improving the genetic merit of the herd – trying to make sure that we can finish these cattle faster and at a younger age through that genetic improvement,” he said.

Coupled payments

The minister dismissed calls for a coupled payment of €200/cow.

“The real challenge for the industry is to be able to get to market – at a reasonable return – the beef progeny that we have.

“If you are going to have a situation where you are paying people – regardless of the quality – to keep extra numbers, you are going to drive numbers and cut across the improvements that we are trying to make in quality.

“A coupled payment would be a retrograde step; because, the challenge is – particularly with the growing dairy enterprise – to be able to manage the increased progeny that is going into feeding in the beef sector,” Minister Creed added.

‘Dialogue of the deaf’

He said communication between the dairy and beef sectors has also become a barrier.

One of the things I lament very often is that it is difficult – it’s like a dialogue of the deaf – to have a constructive dialogue between the dairy enterprises and the beef enterprises in Ireland.

“We have to develop some kind of a complimentary offspring from the dairy herd, that is suitable for a beef enterprise.

“I know there is a concern in the meat industry generally that the expansion of the dairy herd could be at the expense of quality in the beef sector.

“That’s something we need to work at; to make sure that the suckler cow – which is a really important backbone to the beef industry, particular in the west of Ireland – is supported.

“But, driving numbers through a coupled payment – so the more suckler cows you have, the more you get paid – would be the wrong system of travel at this stage,” he concluded.