Building bridges in the red meat sector

Beef cattle at grass
Beef cattle at grass

Northern Ireland has a rich history of producing food for the growing population in the British Isles and further afield.

This is well reflected in our livestock sector where we have many innovative and committed producers who are passionate about producing high quality cattle and sheep suitable for the best paying markets.

While these producers are very capable and know their production systems inside out, unfortunately they have historically had relatively few options to explore and understand what happens when their livestock have been left to the abattoir to be processed for the next market.

In many ways over the last number of decades we have been programmed to deliver animals which hit the highest value on the EUROP grid, however in recent years it has become evident that the EUROP grid is not always reflective of the type of animals which are sought by the highest value markets. The success of breed schemes are a good example of this. We have also had a number of difficult situations in recent years where specifications have been changed at short notice by processors. This has often caused severe financial and practical difficulties for farmers and has led to a great deal of mistrust between producer and processor. Obviously this is not a healthy scenario for a sector which remains one of the main pillars in our agri-food industry.

In recent months we have seen a degree of stability come back into beef and sheep production, largely as a result of more favourable currency. So perhaps now is a good time to develop a more understanding relationship between farmers and processors about the issues which are directly affecting all of these businesses. By improving communication and transparency between both parties, arguably there should be opportunities to cancel out some of the previous differences and look at ways in which the industry can move forward so that we’re all in a position to have a more viable future.

Back in October 2016, the UFU beef and lamb committee completed a very informative tour of a local processing and retail packaging plant. This was an excellent chance to walk the line from processing through to the production of the final product. It gave our committee members the opportunity to gain a better understanding of the markets which are being served, what end customers require, how cattle and sheep are being processed and also how the end product is being delivered. From a practical perspective for farmers there was also plenty of discussion about the grading of livestock, dressing specification and also how to get post mortem results back on livestock which could prove beneficial in conjunction with a farm health plan.

Overall the committee felt that this was a very worthwhile experience and there was an appreciation of the openness that this processor displayed on the occasion. With this in mind the committee felt that it would be beneficial if greater awareness was raised amongst the broader farming population about this opportunity. While we were aware that a number of other processors are engaged in running similar events, our committee felt it was necessary that all plants should be approached about engaging in this process. As a result, a decision was taken to approach the LMC and NIMEA about trying to bring more structure to this matter and raise awareness of its benefits so that it is open to all farmers. With positive feedback received to date from all stakeholders involved in the discussion it is anticipated that a new programme will be up and running in the new financial year. All farmers are encouraged to get involved.