Letter to the editor: Science is the future to make farming viable

In 2019 the food and drinks industry made history; I suspect due to innovation supported by science.

At the beginning of this year a report published by Bord Bia highlighted 2019 as having the highest level of exports in Bord Bia’s 25-year history bringing to a close a decade of consistent and extraordinary growth in which food, drink and horticulture exports have grown by 67%, or €5.5 billion since 2010, as I understand it.

Bord Bia’s figures show that food and drink exports have grown by 7% to €13 billion. The then Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed stated that it was to acknowledge the contribution that Ireland’s farm families have made to this export performance, and to recognise the need for the supply chain to deliver a reasonable commercial return for those upon whom the production of high quality consumer products and raw materials depends.

A diversified approach to increasing our reach within the global marketplace has yielded record levels of growth with a strong performance recorded across most sectors and categories.

Beef sector struggle

But while all of the above is very welcome news across the entire agri-food industry, all is not well in one of its main sectors – the beef industry – according to a report by Bord Bia.

Apparently beef production fell by 3% in throughput, which was somewhat offset by a 1.5% increase in carcass weight, the result of better grazing conditions in 2019. Total production was 624,000t in 2019.

Weakened demand for beef in the UK market contributed to a continuing tightening of Irish beef prices and an overall market decline of 7%, with the UK beef market now worth €990 million to Ireland. China, when combined with Hong Kong, now represents Ireland’s largest international market for beef with a combined value of €58 million across the two territories.

If we as beef farmers wish to hand on a viable enterprise to the next generation, we need to re-image and remodel our industry from the bottom up with the appliance of science within the farm gate.

There are two interesting initiatives being progressed at present. A current application with the EU for PGI (Protected Geographical Indicator) status for Irish Grass Fed Beef and also the promotion of a suckler brand over the next three years funded to the tune of €6 million.

The success of these two initiatives will depend to a large extent on the buy-in of farmers on an individual basis, both within the dairy sector and the beef sector, working collectively to produce a product that meets the requirements of the customer.

Use of pedigree bulls

In the dairy sector we need greater input by farmers to produce a better beef confirmation animal to the beef sector by the use of a pedigree bull in their herds.

At present on most dairy farms, 60% of the herd are inseminated with a dairy bull to deliver replacements; another 20% are inseminated by a beef sire, while the remaining 20% are served by a home breed bull.

It’s the last 20% that is of the greatest concern to beef farmers as most of this progeny will progress into the beef sector to be finished thus delivering a high cost, low value animal to the beef farmer.

So we need to encourage all dairy farmers to source a pedigree bull to serve all their dairy cows that have not been selected for breeding replacements.

In the beef sector we also need to change the way we go about our breeding practices and focus on producing progeny that have a high maternal index on milk, as milk produced from grass is the most efficient way to drive growth rate, which will deliver monetary and environmental benefits.

Use of science

We currently have a DNA database, managed by ICBF, which is the envy of all beef-producing countries across the world, but is not fully utilised by our beef breeding sector.

So again like the dairy sector we need to encourage beef farmers to engage with this scientific facility to produce a kilogram of beef in the most efficient and environmentally-friendly way possible, which has the added advantage of reducing our GHG emissions within the farm gate on an individual basis.

So I would suggest that the most important place to start is by putting in place a properly funded scheme in the next CAP [Common Agricultural Policy] within the 30% greening portion of the pillar one funding, to facilitate genotyping of the national herd – both dairy and beef, hence my reference to science.

Science is the future if we have any hope of handing on a viable enterprise to the next generation.

Any other scheme proposing to supplement the industry by providing an increased subsidy on the suckler cow is just maintaining an already loss-making industry. In my opinion it’s akin to the widely-used definition, credited to Albert Einstein on insanity: ‘Doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results’.

Apart from the benefits of a more profitable enterprise, having a database on the DNA of our entire national herd will be a world’s first and will greatly enhance both our beef and dairy products. Placing it above all others with 100% authenticity of its origin, health status, animal welfare and its minimal environmental impact, which would also compliment an environmental scheme encompassing its main objective of reducing our GHG emissions

It will be become a game changer in the promotion of our PGI Grass Fed Beef and our branded suckler beef products. It’s of paramount importance that when we are granted a PGI status for our Grass Fed Beef, that we are in a position to capitalise and build a solid reputation for our premium product, we’ve got to get this right first time

To use a well worn aphorism: ‘It takes twenty years to build a reputation and just twenty seconds to lose one’.

So in summary, I call on all farming organisations, particularly Macra Na Feirme, to call on the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue, to consider putting in place a properly funded scheme to support the genotyping of the national herd to achieve the maximum buy-in by both dairy and beef farmers.

From Martin McGarry, Co. Sligo.