Specialist beef farmers received strong cross-party backing at last week’s Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, with several TDs and senators warning that a hard Brexit would wipe out already struggling cattle farmers.
Fine Gael TD Pat Deering, Chair of the Committee , said 115% of a suckler farmers’ income comes from Europe, which is unsustainable going forward. “The only way viability for suckler farmers can be maintained is by getting a decent and fair price for their product.”
Fine Gael TD for Offaly, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy said, “The real concern for livestock farmers is how they will stay in the sector given the prices they are getting. “
Fine Gael Senator Michelle Mulherin said the current situation in terms of prices is not sustainable.
She warned cattle farming may be at a pivotal point, because young people go to third level nowadays and want a job that provides a reasonable income in the big urban centres, ruling out part-time farming.
Members of the opposition were even more outspoken about the plight of cattle farmers, with Tipperary-based Fianna Fail TD Jackie Cahill saying marketing of Irish beef has not moved one iota in the past ten years , with 96% still sold within the EU.
“I have never seen such despondency among beef farmers,” said Mr Cahill. “The reality at the moment is that farmers are losing money hand over fist.
“A conservative estimate is that cattle would want to make €4.60 per kg to break even due to cost of feed at the moment. Steers are going on the grid at €3.75 per kg.
God help whoever has Friesian steers because one will only get, maybe €3.40 per kg. Cattle are losing a fortune and beef farmers are losing a fortune.
“Unfortunately, the inevitable has arrived and for the past three to four months there has been a kill of 40,000 cattle per week, which we are just not able to sell at a viable price. That is the reality of Food Wise 2025 and, unfortunately, that reality is not being faced up to.
“If we wait around like Nero watching Rome burn then we will not have a beef industry in 12 months’ time,” warned Deputy Cahill.
“There are no cattle over 12 months of age being exported at the moment. We have no market for live exports. We have a situation where we knew that the dairy herd was going to expand rapidly and we did not put the infrastructure in place to get Friesian calves out of the country in greater numbers. We exported 160,000 calves last year, Bord Bia received a levy of around €300,000 when it exported those calves and we have not got adequate lairage facilities on the Continent to take calves this spring.”
He added: “Many suckler farmers I have spoken to say they are keeping as few animals as they can to get the maximum number of benefits and they do not see any payback for increasing stocking levels or even keeping them at the previous level. Pressure is coming from all directions to scale back.”
Sinn Fein Senator Rose Conway Walsh warned: “If a hard Brexit is followed by eight to 12 months without supports, thousands of farmers will not be able to remain in business.”
Department of Agriculture officials told the committee meeting that exceptional aid is being sought in the event of a hard Brexit — along similar lines to the aid that was deployed by the EU after Russia banned EU food in 2014. However, that aid did not arrive until four months after the ban.
The officials also said traditional market supports such as aids to private storage and public intervention are inadequate to maintain beef prices because the intervention rate is set at a very low.
The other avenue the Government is pursuing is state aid, but IFA President Joe Healy has said the EU’s increased State Aid would not cover the scale of farm losses in a Brexit crash out, and the EU Commission will have to be the primary source of funds.