At least one farm stakeholder group in the Republic of Ireland is now calling for cattle to be paid for in terms of meat yield only, as opposed to conformation and fat cover. The belief is that such an approach would benefit the suckler beef sector.
But surely all the R&D work carried out to date indicates that a Friesian bullock will produce as much saleable meat as a prime suckler-bred steer on a weight-for-weight basis. So, surely, the current pricing system operated by all of the factories favours the bespoke, beef-bred animal because of its inherently better shape.
I am all for supporting the suckler industry. It has a proven track record in keeping production agriculture a way-of-life in myriad rural areas across the country. Undoubtedly, the bolstering of prices paid for suckler-bred stock is much needed. But will it help prevent the haemorrhaging of suckler cows that is currently taking place in this part of the world? I doubt it.
Beef, no matter how good its quality, is treated as a commodity product. And this reality places a ceiling on what the market can deliver.
EU Farm Commissioner Phil Hogan has been talking about the need for greater transparency within the agri food chain and getting more money back to the primary producer.
But, so far, we have seen no real action on the ground. And I sense this is because every member state within the EU is committed to a cheap food policy.
Moreover, the European supermarkets bring tremendous political influence to bear when it comes to them running their businesses. They see give-away food prices as a core driver of footfall into their shops. And they are unlikely to change their view on the matter.
What’s really needed to keep suckler beef production a viable, mainstream production option in Northern Ireland is a support package that really reflects the needs of those farmers involved within the sector and, what’s more, fully recognises the public good they engender.
And there are serious problems coming down the track, where this issue is concerned. The UK’s departure from Europe puts a real question mark on the support systems that will be put in place for the industry as whole, never mind the beef sector.
So the real challenge now facing all of our farming organisations id that of coming up with detailed proposals on how support measures for suckler beef production can be ring-fenced, or even increased.
If London fails to move on this issue at a national level, beyond Brexit, its significance is so important for agri-food as a whole in Northern Ireland that the scope to introduce tailored, regional support measures should be called for.