I spoke with John Brennan of the Leitrim organic farmer’s co-op about the current organic beef market.

“In Drumshambo,” said John, “we’ll have 11 organic sales this year. We’re taking the pressure off supply, there are all these cattle coming into in the system later this year, with this number of marts both buyer and seller knows that they can get stock moving.”

How are prices?

Prices are at about €4.70 now, and bonuses are available. Prices are pushing for €5 per kilo. Slaney are offering 20c extra for February, March or April suppliers. Price of organic may well go to €5 — the supply just isn’t there this spring. This is partly because processors didn’t engage quickly enough with farmers. Store cattle are €2.30 to €2.80 a kilo — quality lighter weanings make more per kg.

What about all those new farmers entering the organic system?

The conversion cattle will not start to appear in organic until next spring, they won’t be full symbol until June of this year in many cases. Also a lot of those converting don’t necessarily have the right breed to suit their farm under an organic system. Typically more of the native British and Irish breeds aren’t on those farms. You need the infrastructure — marts especially — which are more established in the north west. There is a north-south divide as the north is more about breeding and quality, more dairy appear in the stock of organic cattle down south.

Are any cost saving emerging for organic feed?

Farmers may be holding out for €5 a kg, but the nuts are €484 for 14% ration; 18% ration, it’s €520 a tonne.

There are organic ration options which some can find surprising. For example, I was just on a farm walk on Eugene Kirrane’s in Mayo. He finishes with red clover, and has protein 14-15%, good liveweight gains of a kilo a day and all with mostly native cattle. Others are feeding rape and finishing on red clover silage. If you rely on concentrates it can be poor for finishing and expensive. Beef systems in the east with tillage can be more successful, but farmers west will produce more weanlings and stores.

What about Brexit — both for border regions and the organic trade?

Brexit is making Welsh and Scottish beef very competitive in EU; they have both PGI status and organic, but they’ll lose the PGI status when they leave the EU.

Brexit though could be bad for Irish breeds. We’re 25 minutes from the border where I am, and it could turn into a hard border. Northern farmers can’t buy here to sell into meat trade, only for breeding stock.

Also in the UK, Waitrose and M&S are still doing a buy British campaign, and Irish animals don’t qualify.

In the UK there is also a new eat less meat campaign — Sainsbury’s are moving meat from shelf space to replace it with vegetables. There have also been connections made in scientific publications between processed meat and cancer. This is all having an effect. Now, organic might be ok to a point, we have other positive messages to tell, but meat reduction, especially of beef, is definitely an EU trend.

What can be done about this?

The ICSA are taking about cutting the national herd to keep good prices and a good product. They are also looking at a €200 suckler cow premium — sucklers make no sense right now.

In marginal land it makes some sense, but not on good land like in the south east. But fundamentally, agriculture will become more plant based in the future.

We’ll have to reimagine much of our livestock — with the CAP cut coming, the cake is going to shrink unless beef becomes something like a caviar. Post Brexit, the UK will buy from New Zealand and the US, or wherever they can really.


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