Northern Ireland has been haemorrhaging suckler cows for the past number of years. And they must be replaced – otherwise we can kiss goodbye to a quality beef industry.
The reality is that we have ended up with a market situation which can often work to deliver prime cattle prices for cows. As a consequence, suckler herdowners are letting go of breeding stock which, in the past, they would have held on to – simply to boost cash flow.
The coming weeks will see Farm Minister Michelle McIlveen and the various stakeholder groups meeting up to discuss the detail of the support measures agriculture will require within a post Brexit scenario. It is my belief that Brexit should allow for a certain degree of ‘re-coupling’ within the livestock sectors. In layman’s terms this means the re-introduction of headage payments.
Given current circumstances, I would heartily encourage the Minister to look seriously at this option, with the aim of bringing back a form of Suckler Cow Payment scheme. I can see no other way of stemming the current decline in beef cow numbers.
Critics of this proposed measure will, quite rightly, point out, that such a scheme constitutes nothing more than a head count and will do nothing to encourage the production of quality beef. One way round this issue might be to link the payment to the use of AI sires or for the herd owner claiming subsidy to verify the active use of a pedigree beef bull within the business.
There seems to be a growing belief that beef from the dairy sector is the big white hope when it comes to salvaging the future of the red meat sector.
Unfortunately, this idea does not stack up. For one thing, there will not be a 1:1 replacement within the milk sector for every suckler cow that we lose.
The reality is that we are producing 50% more milk now than was the case 30 years ago, from the same number of dairy cows. And this trend of getting more milk from an individual cow is hardly likely to change now!
The fact remains that Northern Ireland must retain a viable suckler sector. And important decisions, in this regard, must be taken during the period ahead!