Even cattle finishers who deal in hundreds of animals per year aren’t getting their telephone calls returned by factory procurement agents, as the beef business gets tougher.
Farmers aren’t happy, and are again protesting outside beef factories.
But beef processors say they have paid exceptionally strong prices in recent years, rising 40% since 2009.
Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney says neither he nor any agriculture minister can interfere in a trade that is cyclical and prone to price fluctuations.
He said processors are at the mercy of a marketplace that decides what it wants and what it is willing to pay — the marketplace in the UK, for example, is coping with the consumer reaction to record-high beef prices.
However, Minister Coveney says he is sympathetic to farmers who have difficulties in getting their cattle slaughtered at a price that will allow them a profit, and he has promised to look for a way forward that farmers will accept as fair, and that will allow the meat companies an acceptable profit.
But Minister Coveney says it is the responsibility of the industry — processors and farmers working together — to manage the market for the benefit of both.
He also wants innovation, ef ficiency and improved performance at all levels of the beef-supply chain.
Minister Coveney says he recognises the need to maintain confidence among beef farmers — which is why he has announced an investment package worth up to €40m for beef farmers in 2014 (including the beef genomics scheme, beef data programme, and beef technology adoption programme).
Similar aid will continue up to 2020, at least.
At the same time, Mr Coveney says “it is important to have a live-cattle export trade to keep factories honest” — so he is fully aware of the corner cattle farmers find themselves in.
Perhaps, if pushed, he would point cattle farmers towards an area of innovation he has promoted since his appointment — collaborative farming.
He has put considerable financial resources behind this initiative, in the form of financial support from 2015 onwards for the setting up of collaborative farming arrangements, which, he says, are of particular interest to young people as a pathway to farming.
Since 2012, he has been encouraging par tnership arrangements between neighbouring farmers.
Such arrangements could include partnerships, shared farming, contract rearing of heifers or fodder production, machinery sharing, and purchasing groups.
If g reater co-operation between farmers catches on, it is possible that livestock farmers working together would eventually form co-ops, like the dairy co-ops.
Already, producer groups, along the lines of the Connemara Hill Lamb and Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb groupings of sheep farmers, are one of the collaborative farming arrangements being promoted.
But a more interesting example for cattle farmers is Irish Hereford Prime, established in 1997 by like-minded Hereford breeders and beef producers to market their beef.
With the support of the Irish Hereford Breed Society, a dedicated Hereford producer scheme was put in place, and this group has grown steadily to 2,000 members throughout Ireland, ensuring a continuous supply of suitable cattle.
There is also Irish Aberdeen-Angus Producers Ltd, which was formed in 1995 by six Angus breeders, with the aim of co-ordinating the production and marketing of their beef on the Irish market.
They subsequently formed a processing and marketing alliance with major beef processors.
That puts them a step ahead of the other beef farmers who have to protest outside meat factories to highlight their plight.
But all beef farmers could have the chance to set up and join similar groups, from 2015, while benefiting from new, national funding for setting up collaborative farming arrangements.
In the US, it has been found that 20 to 30 farmers get together in such groups, and can work through bigger, federated co-ops for help with marketing, and even branding.
Producer groups could help farmers who feel they lack power as price-takers, like beef farmers, and they could potentially evolve into bigger co-ops.
Or, groups could rear animals to a certain stage, and have them finished through a bigger co-op with facilities for fattening.
It remains to be seen if their current difficulties are sufficient to force Irish cattle farmers to seek out interesting, new collaborative routes to market.
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