Beef farmers get together amid fears that they will be squeezed out of the picture

Picture: Patrick Browne

Torrents of rain fell as I travelled to Kanturk Mart on Wednesday night, for the first Co Cork public meeting of the Beef Plan movement.

Even the climate seemed to be reinforcing fears that the game is up for beef, a way of farming that is in the balance, in imminent danger of eradication.

The days of the beef farmer being able to stay afloat without an off-farm income to pump into the farm are well behind most of us.

The beef farm needs support now from all quarters.

It might be a sad picture that I’m painting, but it’s a realistic one.

If beef farming remains on its current trajectory, there will be only two types of beef farmer, to my mind, in the very near future. The kind who is wealthy from other pursuits, and who runs a beef farm as a pleasure activity.

The other will be poor, a farmer who was unable to get out when he should have.

Is this what we want?

A fight to re-establish Irish beef farming has begun, as the Beef Plan movement brings thousands of beef farmers together.

At their Kanturk Mart meeting on Wednesday night of last week, Ger Dineen, a suckler farmer from Kilnamartyra, Co Cork was one of the first speakers.

Ger was the 2017 Beef Enterprise winner of the Grass10 Grassland farmer of the Year awards which recognise and reward farmers achieving high levels of grass utilisation in a sustainable manner.

It’s one of many accolades he has received over the years.

Ger spoke in Kanturk of his dismay at the present state of cattle farming.

“There is a huge amount of disrespect from people to farmers,” Ger said. “They expect us to work for nothing. They believe we will work for nothing.”

Turning to the audience, Ger asked, “Would you work off-farm for €2 per hour? Would you work off farm for €4 an hour?

“Would you work off farm for €10 an hour? Well we are doing it right now,” he said.

“Last year I was involved in an agri-competition where something startling was revealed to me. I discovered the beef farmer who sold his stock as weanlings was making a wage of just €2 an hour.

The fellow finishing his bullocks was earning €4 an hour. And the beef farmer with bulls which, by the way, is where they say the real money is, was making just under €10 per hour.

“Many of the those involved in our meat industry know damn all about beef. But they know a hell of a lot about keeping books. They know how to get the best out of us. We need to start doing our own sums.

“Last Saturday, my son came home after just one day working with a stone mason, with a fine ball of money in his hand. He’s only 19, and going to college.

“And we expect young people like him to come back farming! Why should he? Where is the future in the business?”

Liam Fitzgerald, a well known Parthenaise breeder for Liscarroll, Mallow, was another speaker at Kanturk.

Liam spoke of his dismay at the present state of the factory grading system.

“I’m a suckler farmer with most of my cows purebred at this stage. I breed bulls that I sell, and what I don’t sell, I factory. I just want to tell you about my dealing with the factory over the past two years.

“My bulls would normally grade E and U. Fat score 2+, sometimes 3+. I have noticed over the past 12 months that my fat score is going down.

With a fat score now gone from 2+ to 2-, the carcass weight of my cattle would be about 450kg to 500kg, which means a loss to me of between €150 and €180 an animal.

“How can this be happening to the fat scores of my stock, when the animals are from the same cow and the same bull. My fats core is going down, and so is my profit.”

Eamon Corley is a suckler farmer from Co Meath.

Eamon is a spokesman for the Beef Plan Movement.

I suppose the reason we are all here tonight is a good place to start.

“We are here because there are greedy corporations out there. The factories are greedy, the retailer is greedy. The people we buy all our inputs off, the pharmaceutical companies, the drug companies, the people that manage our fuel. They are all big companies. Greed is very prevalent.

“And just to illustrate what is happening, right now in South America, farmers are actually being burned off their land. There is this vegetation that has been growing for hundreds of years and it is being set on fire. The farmer has to run for cover and leave livestock behind.

“And what’s happening then is that soya bean is being planted in the ground. Basically the farmers’ livelihood is gone and is being replaced with factory farms, with little more than slave labour remaining on the farms.

“And while here [in Ireland], they are not physically setting fire to our land, the price we are getting is so poor that many farmers have no choice but to sell out their yards to these large factory feedlots.

“In Co Louth, for example, which is not too far from my own county, it is reckoned that half the farmyards are now controlled by factory feedlots. Which really means the farmer is getting a wage, the factory gets the cattle, the bills are paid.

“And I honestly believe this is something that is going to happen right across the country. It is not something we want and we don’t believe it is something the consumer wants either.

“Back in 1994, we were getting 40% of the retail price for beef. In 2004 it was 30%. Today we are getting 19% and 20%. Diesel has doubled in price in that time, fertiliser has trebled. How can we survive in such an environment?”

“What I am saying tonight is that this isn’t good enough.

The supermarkets are now taking 50% of the retail price of our beef, the processor 30%. We are told it’s a low margin industry, and we will continue to work for nothing, until we stand up and fight. Nobody else is going to fight for us. We need to do it ourselves.

Time will tell if the new Beef Plan kids on the block have what it takes for a showdown.

Meanwhile, the Beef Plan meeting in Kanturk addressed the place in the industry of dairy-influenced calves.

Jack Madigan of Kilkenny Rosé Veal was on hand to talk up the potential global market for Irish grass fed veal.

Other potential markets for beef were highlighted in Kanturk, with one buyer claiming there are customers for beef in China, Thailand, Vietnam and Hong Kong.

All he needed was a producer group with enough product. He had the beef farmers in attendance salivating, with talk of €5.50/kg for prime beef.

Can Beef Plan dream end cattle farming nightmare?

Having a beef producer group of 40,00 members was highlighted as a lever to lower input costs and put pricing pressure on factories, at the Beef Plan meeting in Kanturk.

It was claimed that the movement’s membership now stands at 11,000 strong.

For the Beef Plan to work, beef farmers need to come together.

You may think that is straightforward, on paper at any rate. In Kanturk, all seemed united, but attitudes could change in the cold light of day.

Clearly something needs to be done because, up to now, little was done.

However, getting beef farmers together could be a hard task.

By our very nature, those of us involved in beef farming can be a stubborn and admittedly sometimes contrary bunch.

Beef farming is a very isolating endeavour.

Unlike dairy farmers who have traditionally been in constant contact with the co-op and with other dairy farmers, the beef man or woman tends to work on his or her own.

It’s a business that can get a person well used to his or her own company, and very suspicious of any new venture.

So coming together as a group and holding the line together as a group will, I believe, be the greatest challenge of all for the Beef Plan movement.

And beef farming is now at such a dismal spot, that pressure from banks, and other overdue accounts, could force many to break ranks and sell stock out of necessity, thus eroding producer group strength.

Time will tell if the beef plan is a Utopian dream or one that really can get us out of this current nightmare.

At least it is a plan, and that means that spokesman Eamon Corley has already achieved one of his goals.

He explains, “Back in 2014, I got together with a group of farmers in Co Meath who, like me, weren’t happy with the way beef farming was going.”

We decided to form a producer and purchaser group, and what we learned from dealing with the factories was that the larger the group, the greater the power of bargaining we had.

“The one thing I have never understood, in all my years involved with various organisations within farming, is why there has never been a proper plan for beef.

“It beggars belief that we have never had a proper plan for our industry.

“I vowed a long time ago that if ever I got to a positon where I could do something to rectify this, I would.”

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