The man in the overalls will be king yet

August 2019 will be remembered as a tumultuous month in the annals of Irish beef history. A series of protests outside beef factories brought production to a standstill at a number of plants throughout the country, the ABP plant in Bandon included. Indeed the site at Kilbrogan was where the very first protest of the Beef Plan Movement took place on Sunday evening July 28. 

The Beef Plan Movement protests took place for almost two weeks of early August. These protests were suspended when legal proceedings were brought against the movement’s leadership by five meat companies, namely, ABP, Dawn, Kepak, Liffey Meats and Slaney Foods. 

Talks involving Meat Industry Ireland, ICOS and six farm organisations took place. Not all farmers were happy with the outcome of the talks and, as a result individual farmers returned to factory gates and remained there at the end of August. 

At time of writing a Chinese delegation is due to visit ABP Bandon on September 2. This is part of a long running campaign to develop beef markets in the Asian super power. A huge opportunity for export of Irish beef. 

On Friday, August 30, a deal was brokered by an intermediary between farmer protesters and factory management to let the Chinese inspection go ahead.

Originating in Co Meath in late 2018, the Beef Plan Movement was established by farmers unhappy with their representation by traditional farm organisations and, centred around a plan, it developed to radically change the beef industry. They set up WhatsApp groups for farmers and a number of public meetings were held late last year and throughout the spring to grow membership. It claims to have in excess of 15,000 members.

A UK-based friend of mine described the financial foundations of Ireland’s beef sector as Irish Beefonomics, a branch of economics that follows no standard rules but has ‘worked’ for years.

Simply put, his outsider view is that Irish beef is all about farmers selling and subsidy. He maintained this works so long as it’s not making too much of a loss. 

Now with low prices, subsidy plus off farm income is not proving to be enough to make the difference and is putting a lot of pressure on the primary producer. That’s the crux of the matter. The beef industry in Ireland in its current form grew on the back of membership of the EU and developed into the scale of what it is today on the back of subsidisation from Europe. Prior to EEC membership, the cattle boat to the UK took the raw material and the workers from Ireland. European money and improvements in refrigeration allowed a beef processing industry develop. 

The beef industry worldwide is cutthroat, in all senses of the word. The Irish beef sector is a mix of business, culture and politics. A tricky mix. Unlike our bovine contemporaries in the dairy sector who, for the most part have a common goal, everyone in the beef boat appears to be rowing in different directions. 

At Tullamore show, Minister Creed referenced the toxicity that permeates the sector due to the relationship between farmers and factories. That toxic atmosphere didn’t occur today or yesterday. Legacy issues on the factory side make it difficult for many primary producers to trust them.

To give a thorough restructure of the Irish beef sector would require an act of political suicide and is unlikely to occur. 

In 2000, The IFA maintained a blockade outside meat plants. I was in secondary school then and it was via newspaper, radio and TV that we were informed of proceedings. 

This time social media brought the nitty gritty of protesting to more eyes than those protests. Videos doing the rounds on various platforms showed the good, the bad and the ugly side, as on occasion, emotions ran high on both sides of the picket. The fact that in a lot of cases the protagonists knew each other either through business or as neighbours may result in a longer term fall out at local level. Much was said in the heat of the moment and at times like that, it’s easy to forget that the spoken word can never be unheard. Hopefully when people bump into each other at funerals, marts or weddings, much of it will be left on the pitch so to speak. 

With all that is going on, September has snuck up on us all. Despite all the uncertainty surrounding the beef sector, within my own ditches at least, it was a more pleasant farming summer than that of 2018. 

My own bulls averaged 6c/kg less than 2014 so that tells it’s own story. A positive was the increase in carcass weight, which helped balance things a little but it was still the worst average price per kilo we had received since we moved into finishing cattle.  

I found myself reading an ESRI report recently called ‘Crisis in the cattle industry’. It’s from 1975. The parallels with the current predicament in the cattle sector are such that if you made a few slight changes to it, you could save a new report being devised in 2020. The national herd was at a similar level to now but the current drop in beef prices aren’t as dramatic as 45 years ago. In October 1973 the average price of calves at Bandon mart was £42 per head. Twelve months later it was £7 per head. It may be hard to believe but prices swung around over the next few years too. The point is that I know of a number of farmers who purchased land on the back of animals they were unable to sell as calves in 1974. The current base price for beef is €3.45/kg. In May it was at €3.90/kg.

Farming, as we know it, won’t stay the same. It never does. Expectation in terms of income and lifestyle will see an eventual drift away particularly within drystock and there’ll be less people involved in primary agriculture. That’s something that the industry as a whole will struggle to come to terms with. Technology and mechanisation can only do so much, farming will always require an element of physical work and as some involved in construction are finding out there’s less young people willing to do manual labour. The man in the overalls will be king yet. 

Tommy Moyles

Tommy Moyles runs a suckler to beef herd at Ardfield, Clonakilty, Co Cork.

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