Giving bull beef a bad name

In December, IFA warned members, out of the blue, that beef processors who encouraged farmers to keep bull calves from the dairy herd two years previously, were now turning their back on them, and not even offering to bid on dairy beef bulls.

This week, IFA said bull beef finishers were at their wit’s end, unable to get cattle killed, and facing substantial financial losses.

The slump is giving bull beef a bad name, and is likely to reverse the five-fold increase in recent years of the proportion of male cattle being slaughtered as bulls.

More than any other farm enterprise, bull beef production demands that everything go right, and the sudden breakdown at the marketing end, which became evident in recent months, is likely to drive some farmers back to the safer steer or heifer options, and to steer away anyone who had been considering bull production.

The 10-20% growth rate and lean meat production advantage of bulls is likely to be lost. More and more, low cost beef, produced as much as possible from grass, becomes attractive for farmers.

Even though cattle prices remain relatively high, bad weather and major cost increases for the main beef inputs (in 2013, farmers spent 12.1% extra on foodstuffs and 24.6% extra on fertiliser), have left farmers unwilling to take chances on some new beef initiative. It will be difficult for some time for beef processors to launch any new initiative

Go intensive, with expensive feeding — and the processors will probably let you down — when you are at your most vulnerable.

Bull beef was a route to increasing output, and to reducing greenhouse gas emissions in cattle farming — but it has now become a bad word as far as most farmers are concerned.

In other words, the Irish beef industry has got one of its major innovations wrong.

IFA said this week that under-16 month bull beef production doesn’t work in a grass-based system. Farmers could lost all faith in bulls, dairy or beef-bred — even though Norther n Ireland researcher Dr Norman Weatherup of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), said recently that average daily gain from birth of 1.33kg/day is not a very demanding target for healthy suckler bulls, to produce a finished carcase of 360 kg by 450 days of age (15 months). And that includes high quality grass to maintain suckler cow milk supply to the calf, and calf growth rate after calves start grazing.

Dairy bull beef is definitely a non-runner for the meantime, with Henry Burns of IFA saying the more Friesian calves that go out in live exports, the better.

The bull beef slump has rebuilt the old animosities between cattle farmers and beef processors — and the timing is unfortunate, just as the Government launches a bid to use genomics to efficiently increase cattle output.

We are all losers, insofar as the ultimate national aim for the beef industry is to slaughter and process as many cattle as possible in Ireland, generating more jobs.

Instead, far mers would send millions of animals for live export, if there were sufficient markets and ships available. Unfor tunately, that’s where the opportunity for beef entrepreneurs lies now, to take advantage of the global beef scarcity by over-coming trading and labelling barriers, and open live exports to the ever lengthening list of countries now open for Irish cattle — in the EU, Egypt, the Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya. Farmers would be lining up at the ports to fill every shipment.

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