We are losing too many suckler cows

Recently, local papers in the west of Ireland have been full of mart adverts, which highlight upcoming suckler dispersal sales.

I personally know three farmers in Co. Mayo who have made the decision to let their beef cows go. And I am hearing similar stories from Co. Roscommon.

In the vast majority of cases, the theory being enacted is a very simple one: selling the suckler cows will be used to part-fund a switch to dairy.

Given current milk prices, one can sense why dairy may seem like an attractive option. This state of mind is further facilitated by the fact that most of us suffer from short-term memory loss syndrome.

Dare I point out that less than 12 months ago, most Irish dairy farms were losing money hand over fist. And it was new entrants into the sector who were feeling the brunt of the pressure impacting on the industry at that time.

But that’s a story for another day. The reality is that Ireland must retain a viable suckler sector. The humble beef cow, with all her inherent inefficiencies, is at the heart of it all. So their numbers must be maintained. Otherwise we can kiss goodbye to a quality beef industry.

It should also be pointed out that we have ended up with a market situation which can often work to deliver prime cattle prices for cows.

As a consequence, suckler herd owners are letting-go valuable breeding stock in order to boost cash flow and repay debt.

The coming weeks will see EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan and the various stakeholder groups meeting up to discuss the detail of the upcoming Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) review that will be required to bring the farming industry throughout Europe beyond 2020.

It is my belief that future beef support measures should allow for a certain degree of ‘re-coupling’ within that industry. In layman’s terms this means the re-introduction of headage payments.

Given current circumstances, I would heartily encourage the CAP decision-makers to look seriously at this option, with the aim of bringing back a form of Suckler Cow Payment scheme.

I can see no other way of stemming the more than significant pressure on beef cow numbers.

Critics of this proposed measure will, quite rightly, point out that such a scheme constitutes nothing more than a head count and will do nothing to encourage the production of quality beef.

One way round this potential problem might be to link the payment to the use of AI sires or for the herd owner claiming subsidy to verify the active use of a pedigree beef bull within the business.

There seems to be a growing belief that beef from the dairy industry is the big white hope when it comes to salvaging the future of the red meat sector. Unfortunately, this idea does not stack up. For one thing, there will not be a 1:1 replacement within the milk sector for every suckler cow that we lose.

The statistics show that we are now producing 50% more milk from the same number of dairy cows than was the case 30 years ago. And this trend of getting more milk from an individual cow is hardly likely to change.

But the fact remains that Ireland must retain a viable suckler beef sector. And important decisions in this regard have to be taken in the very near future.