‘We’re determined to follow this all the way’ – Beef Plan’s new voice

It’s been a grueling eight months for the Beef Plan Movement since the establishment of its official national committee on a cold winter’s night in Tullamore, last November.

At that time, the group – then representing 3,000 members – voted to appoint a number of key representatives including: a chairperson (Eamon Corley); a vice chairperson (Hugh Doyle); a secretary (Declan Molloy); and a treasurer (Moira Doyle).

With a team in place, an expansive recruitment process got underway over the subsequent months to inform the country’s beef farmers of Beef Plan 2018-2025 – a road map for the sector aimed at “saving and rejuvenating beef farming in Ireland before it’s too late”.

They held public meetings at dozens of marts and hotels telling of their objectives to “regain control” of an animal from “birth to slaughter and beyond”; of returning a “cost-of-production price, plus a margin” for the primary producer; and of “regaining respect” for the beef farmer within the industry.

In line with this, membership mushroomed to its current status of a little over 20,000.

Although operating in a space already populated by a number of long-established, high-standing farm lobby organisations, the Beef Plan Movement has driven its agenda onto factory floors, supermarket aisles, the corridors of Leinster House and into the public’s consciousness through a series of provocative protests.

The sector at large is now well aware of the Beef Plan Movement – but where can the group go from here?

Changes afoot

Sitting down with AgriLand at his suckler and sheep holding in Summerhill, Co. Meath, Hugh Doyle reflected on the group’s development to date, the challenges it has faced – and the rocky road that remains ahead.

He also outlined his new role as co-chairman of the body – alongside Eamon Corley.

“We have zero regrets to this stage and we are determined to follow this the whole way through.

“The more I learn about this industry, the more I realise that where it is at the moment has happened over the last 10 years.

All the stakeholders have such a stranglehold on our industry that we have got to the stage now that our future, unless it is addressed in a radical way, is very bleak.

“We have to change Government policy. What we are demanding is that Government legislation is brought in – be it on an EU level or on a national level – to investigate the retailers and get a proper report on their true margin on the retail price and the same with the processors.

“The processors, Meat Industry Ireland [MII], will throw out statistics stating that their net margin is in the region of 1% – which is beyond laughable.

“They are saying that for a finished animal worth €1,500 they are getting up to €15 net profit.

“A lot of the larger processors also have secondary businesses – which most of the time are not in this country – and they sell their raw product into that and they add value.

Be it as pizzas, or lasagnas, or dog food, or whatever – but what about those returns? Where is that reflected? That all needs to be looked at.

“MII recently acknowledged that offal has a value, but now it is saying that ‘it’s incorporated in the price’.

“Prior to that it was saying that ‘offal had little or no value’. What’s happening is the retailers and the processors can throw out whatever information they want and there is nobody there to second guess that information.

“There is nobody there to sit down and say it’s not just the beef end, it’s the primary producer worldwide that is being screwed,” Doyle claimed.

Uncontrolled rogues

Despite meetings with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, Bord Bia, MII and other agri-related state agencies, ‘Beef Plan’ has found the political side a hard nut to crack.

“We have found that difficult. It took the other farm organisations years to get to where they are and we feel, in a lot of situations, that we are hitting a stone wall.

I think the Government sees us as uncontrolled rogues because we have no allegiance. But, there are elections coming up and people will be held to account.

“We’re only up and running eight months, so we are still finding our identity. Once we get a proper foothold of the various different ministers they will see that we are a catalyst for change.

“The other farm organisations have upped their game since we came on the scene which is good for everybody – and I don’t apologise for that.

“Beef Plan doesn’t see that as a negative, we should all work together because the industry is at a stage now whereby if we don’t do something about it, if Beef Plan was to step down in the morning, I genuinely think that our beef industry is over – I think it would be reshaped as a completely different model.”

Farmer super group?

Having also held discussions with a number of the other farm lobby groups, Beef Plan is open to the idea of potential collaborations down the line.

“Ultimately, will the farm organisations have to come together? In the early stages I’d say no – but, a lot of us have a lot in common. We haven’t really engaged with that idea yet – but it is a possibility.

“At the end of the day if you were to potentially look at joining with another farm organisation, both organisations would want to feel that they held onto their own identity,” said Doyle.

Although the group was initially described as a splinter or break away grouping of the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), Doyle insists that, as far as he is concerned, there is no bad blood between the farmer bodies.

“I have no problem with the IFA; I see the IFA as possibly a world-class lobby group.

But, I do genuinely feel that they possibly had their teeth removed in the last couple of years, whereas we have teeth and are only learning the lobby game.

“And I put my hands up, it is a huge learning curve. You don’t learn it in a few months, the income stream that the IFA has compared to the Beef Plan is David versus Goliath.

“But to encapsulate what Beef Plan is, we are a group that is not afraid to hold people to account. We will say whatever we feel has to be said in order to make that happen.

“Whereas I find that sometimes that other farm organisations feel that there are certain things that they can’t say for fear that they may not have the same engagement with the Government.

“As far as we’re concerned we have nothing to lose,” he said.

Grassroot frustrations

Doyle admits that grassroots members are becoming frustrated that more concrete actions have not been accomplished at this point – a demand that has triggered structural changes within the entity – whose representatives all operate on a voluntary basis.

Eamon has decided to concentrate on our purchasing groups and producer groups.

“We are also looking at the possibility of selling our own product, so that is going to be his remit.”

Beef Plan has established purchasing groups in all bar three counties, with deals available to farmers on insurance and electricity. More than 3,500 are currently availing of these offers, according to Doyle.

“I will be focused on strategy going forward, media and trying to pull our various committees together so that we’re working in a cohesive manner,” he said.

Although an initial membership target of 40,000 had been set, Doyle says this ambition has been parked for now.

“On the recruitment end what we are going to do in the short term is freeze the 40,000 and just concentrate on getting some of our key issues over the line – hammering home frustrations over anti-competitive practices and the factory’s Quality Payment Scheme.

“We have an awful lot of strong people within the organisation and I want to delegate, give people the responsibility to do a particular task, and then to report back as to what they’ve actually done.

“We need to move onto the next stage, regarding engagement with the minister and engaging with different bodies from within the Dáil,” he said, adding that the possibility of running candidates under the group’s banner in the next general election has not been ruled out.

Accounts

Beef Plan itself is aiming to hold elections in the spring of next year, as soon its first set of accounts are put through.

Pubic relations is an area that it is looking into in a big way, with intentions to have a company employed in the next few days.

Although each farmer member initially paid a membership fee of €10 to get the movement off the ground, the coffers will need to be topped up in the long term.

“We’re very frugal with our spending; we have to be. We have enough money in the bank, every Beef Plan member now is insured for indemnity and public liability and all the different insurances, that is all up and running.

We will have to go back to the farmer; but, I’m not going back now because I want to prove to the farmer that we have achieved.

“They are probably saying the Beef Plan results are slow enough about coming, but the biggest problem is, farmers by nature, they are slow to change and they are probably a little bit afraid to change.

“There is an age profile that we need to overcome, we have 1,200 people that are on text only, they are not on WhatsApp. We have 250 people that are on landlines only, they’ve no mobile.

“That’s where we are, they are our customer base and we have to be able to account for everybody. We have all of the bottles up on the wall, it’s a matter of feeding it out now,” he said.

Environment is key

Doyle sees huge potential for agriculture in the biogas space – particularly if the Government rows in behind a wide-scale anaerobic digestion co-op model, specifically operated by farming communities.

Last week, the second phase of the Support Scheme for Renewable Heat (SSRH) – which will provide operational support for biomass boilers and anaerobic digestion (AD) heating systems – was opened by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton.

This scheme is designed to replace fossil fuel heating systems by heat pumps and by heat from biomass or anaerobic digestion.

It is aimed to support up to 1,300GWh of renewable heat per year (equivalent to the heating needs of circa 120,000 homes).

Overall, the projects are anticipated to increase renewable heat use in Ireland by three percentage points and decrease emissions in the non-ETS sector by approximately 300,000t of CO2 per year.

It comes following recent remarks from Minister Bruton that the state’s failure to meet its 2020 greenhouse gas emissions targets is likely to cost the taxpayer €150 million in carbon credits.

Doyle contends that the latest SSRH announcement won’t even scratch the surface of Ireland’s AD potential – highlighting that other EU member states are light years ahead in the space.

He believes a farmer-led biogas industry could encourage more extensive farming that would complement suckler enterprises.

“Farmers could transform Ireland both environmentally and economically. We could be the beacon for the rest of the world to follow because we produce millions and millions of tonnes of grass and millions and millions of tonnes of slurry.

“When you put them together and take away oxygen we could run all the lorries, the cars and heat all the hospitals in the country – and give an income stream to farmers.

Our dream is to have 80 or 100 co-ops all around Ireland producing methane where the farmer, instead of bringing milk into the creamery, is bringing gas and slurry to the co-op and then the lorries are collecting the methane and the environment is absolutely fine.

“There are carbon quotas coming. In the next 12 months every farm in Ireland will have a carbon quota because that is the only way they are going to be able to restrict the increase in the dairy herd.

“In the North at the moment, the farmer gets the equivalent of a year’s rent for seven weeks’ grass growth; that’s about £250 net for producing grass for seven weeks, so basically they get from £30-35/t.

“For the first year they have to spread artificial fertiliser in order to grow the grass; but from year two all the farmer needs to do is collect the digestate.

[Digestate is the material remaining after the anaerobic digestion of a biodegradable feedstock.]

“You can actually granulate it and bring it back the same as artificial fertiliser, spread it on your land and you get your next crop. It’s completely organic and all the weeds are killed during the process.

But we need to push the co-op version; if corporates get their hands on this it’s curtains. The farmer will just be squeezed again.

“We are world leaders at growing grass and if our suckler herd is to survive, we will have to go for digesters, reduce numbers and become more extensive. There is nothing wrong with extensive farming because a farmer has control on his inputs he can actually see the return.”

Dairy-beef conundrum

He’s unconvinced of the potential that exists for dairy-bred cattle.

Pointing to the findings of a recent Teagasc study that focused the feed efficiency of suckler-bred Charolais compared to dairy-bred Holstein-Friesian steers, Doyle questions the environmental credentials of pushing a dairy-beef production model.

Due to the lower kill-out proportion and lower estimated meat proportion in the carcass of Holstein-Friesian steers compared to suckler-bred Charolais, during the finishing phase Holstein-Friesian steers consumed approximately 33% and 50% more feed DM/kg carcass and meat gain, respectively, than suckler-bred Charolais.

The research concluded that clearly this breed difference in feed efficiency is a substantial cost to beef farmers. Additionally, it has implications for farm stocking rate and environmental footprint, the paper stated.

“We’re being advised to finish these animals but my question is what does that do for the environment?

If you are asking farmers to produce less efficient animals and it takes that animal twice as long to put on the same amount of meat what is that doing for the environment?

“There is no joined up thinking here, everyone is running in different directions. We have got to keep the environment as number one because there is a train coming down the track from Brussels and we cannot ignore that.

“A lot of our suckler farmer members are going to reduce their suckler cow herd after the Beef Data Genomics Programme ends next year.

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“Teagasc is anticipating that the suckler herd will reduce by 100,000 head over the next three years; personally, I think it will implode next year.

“If we’re at 900,000 head I can see the suckler herd being pulled back to 450,000-500,000 head – and possibly the Government hasn’t got a problem with that which is fair enough if that is the route that we are going to go down.

We have to have joined up thinking as to what is going to take its place and that’s why I’m pushing the AD.

“At the end of the day the dairy-beef model is not going to put money in the farmer’s pocket, anaerobic digesters will put money in the farmer’s pocket and it will help the environment.”

Beef Plan is currently seeking a meeting with the Green Party to address what Doyle describes as a “huge disconnect” regarding farmers and the environment.

“We feel that the Government – what they are bringing to the table is not enough. Agriculture could be the saviour of the environment if we all work together as a team.

“But we are a thorn in the side of the Government – and I can assure you that thorn will fester come the next elections,” Doyle concluded.