Political chess leaves agriculture the loser

Having been subjected to some withering – yet totally unjust – sniping for being actively involved in a local election campaign many years ago, my activity surrounding such matters is now more peripheral. Whether that’s right or even fair is a topic for another day. The change in tack hasn’t, however, dimmed a passionate interest in such things.

Experience has left a multitude of examples of local and indeed European elections being the platform by which the electorate send a message to those in power demanding that they smarten themselves up. Possibly that signal has never been so accentuated as in the aftermath of the most recent polls.

It’s said that the definition of stupidity is repeatedly the same thing and expecting different outcomes. Thus, it’s presumably safe enough to assume the Government will engage in some form of shuffling of the decks in the wake of what was a fairly comprehensive rebuke delivered by the people on May 23rd.

Among the changes already being touted is the re-location of Simon Coveney out of the Dept. Of Agriculture. How this is handled – if indeed it transpires – needs to be monitored closely. When the current administration assumed office, it would’ve been felt that Mr Coveney was the best person for the job.

Some recent developments have admittedly shown cracks in his performance. However his greatest challenge – or that facing his replacement if such is the case – may be to assuage genuine fears being felt by beef farmers and the beef sector generally. Trepidation in fact increases though, out of a sense that any game of political chess regarding agriculture will leave agriculture itself the loser.

Circumstance recently dictated that a McDonald’s takeaway was the lunch of choice. Taking into account that the fast food giant has been steadfast in their support of Irish beef only underlined the crisis facing the sector on other fronts. Even allowing for the decision of the Russians to ban the importation of Irish offal, that there are so many export markets for our beef – both live and slaughtered – and yet live exports to Northern Ireland aren’t happening simply cannot be right.

Reasoning that the current situation in the beef industry is to the greatest benefit of the processors and retailers – and to the greatest detriment of those actively in beef production – is difficult to avoid. Worse, it sees the spectre of farmers having to amend production systems – or worse, exit production entirely – looms on the horizon.

Certainly, bull beef production no longer appears viable. Factories continually moving the goalposts in terms of specs demanded of farmers puts livelihoods at risk. I’ve heard of bull finishers losing up to €300/hd on stock last backend and so far this year. Moreover, suppressed prices are now afflicting steer and heifer beef also.

Favourable climatic conditions have seen mounds of silage pitted and baled and hay saved in recent times and, were the weather to stay on its current upward curve it would also auger well for the forthcoming harvest. The big question, now, though, is will farmers – with the exception of large scale producers on contracts – be tempted to sell quantities of fodder rather than feeding stock on to big weights?

Market demand will obviously dictate what shape the beef sector takes going forward. Recent research suggests breeds of cattle don’t matter too much to consumers when purchasing meat. Whether the same can be applied as to if cattle are castrated or not is unclear. What is plain to see is that – whereas the thought once was when everyone starts getting out of something is the time to get into it – presently there’s scant incentive to go anywhere near bull beef production.

So, what does one do? To those for whom keeping heifers may not be an option, the alternative would surely be to go the steer route. However, with the paltry prices which have engulfed bulls seemingly now inhibiting steer and heifer finishers, there’s not even great appeal to that.

The best options presently would appear to be either buying in calves or small weanlings and attempting to get them to about 400kgs before moving stock on as stores. At the moment, though, confidence regarding all such matters is in short supply.



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