This post first appeared online at on the 17th August 2017

Stephen Carr wrote an interesting article in the Farmers’ Weekly concerning the future of beef in the UK. Those involved in beef farming policy making in Ireland should read it. It may appear to be counter-intuitive but not if you put your ducklings in a line first.

To quote from Friday 28 July 2017’s edition, “In a recent speech to the World Angus Forum, Gavin Hill of Scotland’s Rural College insulted the intelligence of British suckler cow producers by telling them they needed to understand how to calculate their total costs of production”. Strong stuff indeed. I wonder how many Irish suckler beef farmers have had felt similarly?

Stephen goes on to say that “No rational business person would have continued to keep suckler cows since 2005 when beef cattle headage payments were withdrawn… suckler cows have been a financial disaster (I keep 40 pedigree Sussex cows) … Eblex Business Pointers survey has shown consistent losses for suckler cows (often running into hundreds of pounds a cow a year) if unpaid family labour is included in the costings”. So why, then, have suckler cow numbers held up so well given the sector has been losing money for 12 years?

The ‘poor’ performance of the suckler herd is an issue that is being addressed in Ireland with knowledge transfer groups and demonstration farms. It is all about improving ‘efficiency’. It is also not just about farming profitability, it is about our ‘sustainable’ image and reducing GHG emissions; both require ‘improved’ on-farm production performance. And further, policy makers seem determined to replace poor-performing suckler herds with dairy cows and forestry plantations.

Poorly performing, unprofitable and just plain unwanted. So why do suckler farmers continue?

Let us first look at the decision making behind so many suckler farms, and Ireland indeed has many. To do so, one should mention that one has two broad groups; those that are part time and those who see keeping suckler cows as their full-time occupation and primary income source. The time that the farmer can or is willing to commit to keeping cows is a major but much under-appreciated factor when it comes to the way the farm is operated. That needs to change.

A flaw in Irish agri-food policy making in recent years has not been starting from an understanding of what the objectives of the primary producer are. It also ignores the key issue of the resources they have available. It has neither been about meeting farmers’ objectives or providing them with an adequate return for the use of their resources. Net result, a dysfunctional agri-food policy.

To return to Stephen’s article; “the key to the numerical stability of the national herd… is the small size of the average UK suckler herd, which remains stuck at 28 cows… The reason for this average low herd size is that a small herd does not require any third-party labour if the farmer and his family are prepared to do the work themselves… a few cows are not going to lose anyone much money in hard cash terms”. Sound familiar? How many Irish suckler farms continue because the owner’s objectives are not firstly about making money?

Basically, there are many who keep suckler cows because they have a passion for farming but work off-farm. It is also a way of managing the family homestead, keeping the land in the family, providing an escape from urban and/or office life and owning it for its amenity value. It is about enjoying these benefits and minimizing the financial losses. It creates a different mindset.

For some these farms are under-performing, be it in a financial, sustainability or emissions context. For the owners, they may be not. The crux of the matter is that their chosen farming ‘model’ does not factor in the labour or, crucially, the management time necessary to improve ‘productivity’ and ‘performance’. Simply, to commit the resources required will mean that the farm fails to meet the owner’s loss-minimization objective. They are successfully unsuccessful.

So how do policy-makers address this conundrum? Obviously forced land transfer is not an option. De facto, the control of the land is in the hands of farmers with their own ideas about what they want. It is what policy-makers must deal with, like it or not. And, to-date, they have largely failed to do so. One can have any number of policy targets but they are unattainable if the decision-makers on the ground operate with a different agenda. It is this agenda that must first be understood.

The key point is that we must design a farming system that works for Irish suckler beef farmers, be they part time or full. And the former’s less monetary goals must not undermine the latter. Most will remain small scale and that means focusing on producing and selling a high-value product. Irish beef farmers have a passion for beef farming and that is an asset that must be utilized. A farm-to-fork beef system must deliver the multiple product characteristics that the modern premium-paying consumer wants and it must convert that premium into an enhanced farm-gate price. Fundamentally, suckler beef farming cannot be about producing high volumes of commodity beef, albeit farm assured, that ends up as mince and meatballs on the shelves of Tesco.

And last, when it comes to policy and the design of support mechanisms for the suckler beef sector, suckler beef farms should also be evaluated in terms of emissions AND carbon sequestration, their role in landscape management and biodiversity enhancement, and their contribution to the social fabric of rural Ireland. They can and should be many things to many people even if, frustratingly for some, they are not just ‘efficient’ and ‘productive’ profit-orientated ventures.

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