Factories can’t have it every way

The old adage about learning something new every day certainly rings true. Especially when it comes to farming. For instance, it was only upon perusal of Katherine O’Leary’s regular column in the Irish Country Living magazine which accompanies the Irish Farmers Journal that it was learnt that she is the wife of Tim O’Leary – newly elected Vice President of the IFA.
Anyway, Katherine’s column on the occasion in question was a tribute to the late, great Paddy O’Keefe to mark the first anniversary of his passing. I never met Paddy, though was always enthralled by his contributions in the paper. More than that, it was clear that Paddy was a strong advocate, a visionary and something of a revolutionary in farming and in particular regarding matters to do  with the use of science in agriculture.

The Late Paddy O’Keefe
That there now exists the Paddy O’Keefe Innovation Centre, which specialises in grassland management and getting the most out of same, is a fitting tribute to a man ahead of his time and who was highly passionate about those areas. It may have been mostly relevant to the dairy sector, but, good grassland operations are equally as crucial in beef farming.
It of course stands to reason that the longer cattle can be left at grass, the better. Indeed, over the past few months it has been surprising to see plenty of stock in fields. Out-wintering on the scale of old may be gone, but there’s obviously merit in leaving some out as well where possible.
Intensive in feeding seems to be the modus operandi  of most beef finishers. In one sense, the benefits are obvious – land gets a chance to regenerate and feeding all the stock in one place reduces the workload on the farmer. However, finishing indoors requires a fair degree of purchased inputs such as ration and – depending on a given farmers system – haylage or straw or some such additional feed.
You’d wonder, though, will some finishers be having a re-think in view of recent developments. Namely the paltry – and that’s the nicest way it could be put – prices being offered to bull finishers by processors. Factories can’t have it both ways. Finishing of young bulls was actively encouraged, but how can farmers continue to do so if it’s plainly not viable?
The question must be asked, of course, how did the increase in bull beef production come about? Well, because it was sought. One source in the meat industry tells me that a lot of the interest can be traced back to the Olympics in London in 2012. Farmers were guided towards finishing stock as bulls because demand was expected to soar.
For a period, it may have, and there’s no doubt there was money to be made. The benefits to the farmer are clear – bulls can be finished to slaughter quicker than steers. Thus, input costs in terms of feed and bedding are considerably lower. On the flip side, while animals mightn’t need to be intensively fed for as long, while they are being finished they will eat vast amounts. Where the benefit accrued was in terms of the price paid for finished bulls. With that now eroded to shameful levels, what incentive is there to continue bull production?
As with many facets of life trends in farming are often cyclical. Dairy expansion has been the buzz theme for the last while – possibly to the greatest detriment of the suckler herd. Also, however, heifers that might once have been finished to beef are now being put in calf and converted to a career in dairy.
So, logic would say there’s bound to be an opening – of sorts at least – for those engaged in beef production. And, with going the bull route to same no longer looking so attractive, the focus is most likely to shift to steers. That’s bound to be a fillip to those who keep bullocks. Whether it leads to success for them or not, however, will ultimately be decided by the factories.

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