Revealed: ‘Factory feedlot’ contribution to Irish beef kill

A total of 315,722 cattle that originated from ‘factory feedlots’ were slaughtered at Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) approved beef exporting plants up to and including the week ending December 16, 2018, AgriLand can reveal.

This figure represents just over 18% of the total national beef kill up to and including this date.

Following a detailed analysis of official, newly-identified figures obtained from the Department of Agriculture, this publication has learned that – on average – a total of 6,314 feedlot cattle have been killed each week over the last 12 months.

The cattle are sourced from a total of 338 feedlots and they are located throughout the country.

These feedlots specifically operate under restrictions in accordance with Ireland’s Bovine TB Eradication Programme for 2017 and 2018; they are what might typically be referred to as ‘restricted feedlots’ (see an explanation of this term at the bottom of this article).

It is understood that all such feedlots directly supply factories countrywide.

The term ‘factory feedlot’, in this context, could include factory-owned and factory-contracted (but privately-owned) operations.

Under the spotlight

The business of feedlots has been under the spotlight in recent months, with many farmers and farm bodies questioning the appropriateness and impact of ‘factory feedlots’ on overall supplies and price.

For the purpose of the analysis below it must be noted that all figures cited exclude calf slaughterings.

The location of these feedlots will be examined in greater detail later in the article.

As it stands, 1,743,390 cattle have been slaughtered in Irish beef plants this year.

However, when the number of cattle originating from ‘factory feedlots’ is excluded this figure drops to 1,427,668 head.

The feedlot herds consist of cows, heifers and male animals, whereby stock must be either permanently housed, confined exclusively to yards or behind walled or doubled-fenced boundaries. See the pie chart below.

Total beef kill in Ireland in 2018 up to and including the week ending December 16

Let’s have a closer look.

Monthly breakdown 2018

In 2018, according to an analysis of the department’s figures, 22% of the total beef kill came from ‘factory feedlots’ during the months of May and June – a time when Irish cattle supplies generally tighten, somewhat.

The months of March and April saw feedlot supplies of 20%, while February feedlot supplies accounted for 19% of the total monthly kill.

The 2018 figures also indicate that the average volume of cattle coming from ‘factory feedlots’ amounts to 26,310 head / month.

See the table below for a category-by-category monthly breakdown.

Source: DAFM. Click to enlarge data

Weekly breakdown 2018

A heightened emphasis has been placed on bumper kills in recent times; in the last six weeks alone the 40,000 head mark has been breached four times.

This coincides with a year of consistently high weekly kills.

However, if the number of slaughtered cattle that originated from ‘factory feedlots’ is eliminated, the overall kill reduces substantially.

Over the last six weeks the average kill amounted to 39,797 head – however, just less than 7,000 head / week flowed in from the country’s ‘factory feedlots’.

Furthermore, during the months of May and June almost a quarter of the weekly kill was sourced from feedlot operations.

The weekly contribution of ‘factory feedlots’ to the 2018 national beef kill is revealed in detail below.

Source: DAFM. Click to enlarge data

Monthly breakdown 2017

Turning to 2017, an analysis of official department figures shows that 21% of the total beef kill originated from ‘factory feedlots’ last December.

Last May, cattle from feedlots accounted for 20% of the monthly kill – this dropped slightly to 19% last June.

Meanwhile, a combined volume of 82,825 head was rolled out during the months of March, July and November last year.

Source: DAFM. Click to enlarge data

Where are the ‘factory feedlots’ located?

AgriLand can also reveal the number and locations of these individual feedlots throughout Ireland over the last 24 months.

Interestingly, there has been a marked increase in the number of feedlots operating in 2018 when compared to 2017 levels.

Figures released to AgriLand by the department indicate that there are 338 restricted ‘factory feedlots’ in operation across the Republic of Ireland – up from 283 in 2017 – an increase of 55 or just over 19%.

The number of ‘factory feedlots’ in Co. Meath jumped by 13, while the number of feedlots operating in Co. Tipperary increased by 16 amounting to 45.

Co. Laois recorded an increase of 16; the number of feedlots in Co. Kilkenny amounts to 19 – up from 10 in 2017. In addition, feedlots in Co. Kildare jumped to 41 – up from 34 last year.

However, the number of operations in Co. Cork fell from 41 to 22 in 2018.

All other counties recorded relatively small increases or decreases. See the map below for a more detailed county-by-county breakdown.

County-by-county breakdown of the number of restricted feedlot herds under the TB programme for 2017 and 2018

Comment

From the above analysis, we can see that almost one fifth of the national beef kill was supplied by ‘factory feedlots’ in 2018.

A similar picture emerges from the 2017 data, which shows that just over 17% of the total beef kill was sourced from ‘factory feedlots’.

This increase from 2017 to 2018 could be somewhat driven by the marked increase in ‘factory feedlots’ dotted across the island – a hike that validates the concerns of many farm body leaders and representatives that have expressed serious concerns on this matter recently.

Many farmers are of the opinion that ‘factory feedlots’ are detrimental to farm gate prices, as processors have the option to dip into their own pools whenever the need arises.

The figures presented here now clearly indicate the volume of cattle that originate from feedlot herds – on a weekly, monthly and yearly basis.

The questions that now arise are: Are these volumes significant enough to control price/kg? And, can processors manipulate throughput?

AgriLand has requested more details on Ireland’s ‘factory feedlots’ dating back over the last decade. However, this information was unavailable at the time of publication.

Department statement

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine outlined the exact definition of a feedlot herd, as far as it is concerned.

Under the TB programme a feedlot herd is a restricted herd that comprises a ‘non-breeding’ unit which disposes of all cattle direct for slaughter and fulfils at least one of the following three criteria:
  • The cattle are permanently housed (never on pasture);
  • There are no contiguous holdings/lands with cattle (in other words, they must not have any neighbour contacts – either through cattle being confined exclusively in yards/buildings or, if intending to graze cattle, the land must be secured so there can be no contact with other cattle;
  • The boundaries are walled, double fenced or equivalent so as to prevent any direct contact with cattle on contiguous lands/premises/holdings.

Furthermore, the department outlined that there must be no evidence of the within-herd spread of TB.

Thus, a feedlot herd is a herd that poses minimal risk of infecting other cattle because of effective isolation from other herds, the statement outlines.

With regard to the county-by-county breakdown of the restricted feedlot locations, the department also stated that “the figures are fluid”.

“Some herds that were restricted feedlots in 2017 may no longer be so in 2018 and vice versa. This is because some herds finish cattle for relatively short time periods prior to slaughter. These herds are non-breeding and do not trade onwards except to slaughter,” the department stated.

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