There was probably never a good time for Ireland’s dysfunctional beef industry to face such an existential threat as Brexit.
Farmers say that if there are difficulties getting beef into the UK, and it goes back to the European market, where 45% of our beef already goes, it will cause major price problems.
They say that would require the Government and Europe to put in place a floor price for beef and protection measures to save cattle farmers.
But there may be no way to avoid the effect on the CAP budget of losing €11bn-€12bn per year from the UK government.
It’s a grim prospect for a business offering farmers only pocket money wages at the best of times.
Right now, beef farming has only one thing going for it. That is near full employment nationally.
The only thing sustaining most beef farms, along with the CAP payments, is jobs either part-time or full-time off the farm, enabling hobby beef farming.
It also got a shot in the arm from the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP), but that will end in 2020 for most of those involved.
The BDGP helps only the suckler farmer but is worth on average €2,000 per year for suckler farms.
More to the point, it locks participants in for six years.
Applicants had to commit to participating in the scheme for its full six years duration — with all of the payments previously made to a farmer subject to clawback if a participant withdraws.
Honouring BDGP contracts
Many Irish farmers would probably have given up suckler farming already only for the BDGP, and are only waiting for completion of their BDGP tasks in 2020 to retire from the business.
The new BEEP scheme expected to launch in March will pay €40 per cow, it remains to be seen how many that will entice to stay on in suckling.
Previously, the 2008–2012 Animal Welfare Recording and Breeding Scheme paid €80 per suckler cow, reduced to €40 for 2009 and subsequent years.
Before that, there were 10-month and 22-month slaughter premiums and extensification premiums.
The BDGP pays about €95 per cow for the first number of animals.
And the threat of Brexit hangs over everything.
In the midst of a Brexit crisis would not be a good time to plan actions to help our precarious suckler beef industry.
Without a new BDGP, the suckler farming situation will be much worse, and Ireland will be without one of its more effective carbon footprint reducing schemes.
Unfortunately, it could take a long time too form a new BDGP, and get it approved by the EU. Even then, it could be guaranteed to get a much poorer response than the current BDGP.
With the benefit of hindsight, farmers can see they locked themselves into six years of poor farming profits with the last one.
Threats to suckler sector
They also have Brexit to fear, but along with it, the fear that processors will soak up any extra cash they get from schemes, by cutting beef prices.
Farmers may fall back on options such as continuing to draw their full basic farm payments while rearing dairy calves, or giving over some of their lands to forestry.
Such a stark choice may be inevitable 70 days from now if a no-deal Brexit happens.
Even if Brexit does not happen, the end of the BDGP in 2020 will set back suckler beef farming.
It is a business set for a slump, Brexit or no Brexit.