Province’s suckler cow numbers plunge to a 30-year low

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Latest Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) census figures confirm a 30-year low of suckler cows in Northern Ireland, according to National Beef Association (NBA) board representative for Northern Ireland Ernie Ritchie.

“This trend will escalate until farmers receive a fair price. Costs have continued to rise, and this is raising serious questions of the industry,” said Mr Ritchie.

He went on to point out that beef was quoted at 334p per kilo in Northern Ireland last week. This is down some 30p in the last few months.

NBA analysis indicates that a combination of this price reduction and the results from the December 2018 agricultural survey published by DAERA, showing a reduction of 5% on the number of suckler cows from the 2017 figures, paints a disturbing picture for the future of the local beef sector.

Mr Ritchie continued: “Processors have been filling cold stores in anticipation of a worst-case scenario and pre-empting a lack of imported beef, effectively looking after themselves.”

The NBA representative believes this is having the opposite effect and creating over-supply, which is driving prices down. In addition, the weather conditions have compounded the situation, and the end-result is that farmers across Northern Ireland are being left behind due to lack of profits.

The NBA is also confirming that many beef farmers have moved to dairy or have simply stopped due to concerns on increased costs and reduced prices.

“It ultimately comes down to lack of profit and rising costs of all inputs and the mediocre margins left by these unsustainable prices,” said Mr Ritchie.

Beef prices paid in Northern Ireland are usually significantly below those paid in GB, particularly Scotland. The traditional argument supporting this difference centres on the additional cost of transport across the Irish Sea. However, this does not wash with the NBA.

“Northern Ireland complies to all the same quality standards as the rest of the UK and should be encouraged to continue to supply to the UK market,” explained Mr Ritchie.

“But they need to be able to compete and be able to achieve a fair price.

“My question to the beef processors in Northern Ireland is this: if we in the UK are only 65-70% self-sufficient, how are you managing to fill your cold stores?

“We can’t produce the numbers coming through.”

While there are on-going discussions on trade post-Brexit, the NBA is calling for a more joined-up approach now to ensure the future of Northern Ireland’s beef industry.

Meanwhile Ireland’s farm minister, Michael Creed TD, has highlighted the dangers of a No Deal Brexit for farming across Europe. Speaking in Brussels on Monday evening of this week, he said:

“We are all aware of the events unfolding in Westminster. Our hope is that the deal agreed between the EU and the UK Government can be approved by our friends and neighbours in the UK Parliament, but the outcome is out of our hands.

“An outcome which results in a disorderly Brexit, will have a profoundly negative effect on both the Irish and the UK economies. The Irish agri food sector will be uniquely affected, with beef particularly exposed. The impact is likely to be immediate, and without support, at least in the short term, many of our beef farmers will struggle to survive.

“If Irish beef loses its competitive position in the United Kingdom market, there will inevitably be knock-on consequences, with significant displacement to elsewhere in the European Union.”

Mr Creed concluded: “Ireland is fortunate to be part of a Union that has had the foresight to put in place a suite of measures to support primary producers at times of significant market disruption. If the United Kingdom leaves the European Union without a deal, this will be a disruptive event which is unprecedented.

“The full suite of measures under the Common Market Organisation Regulation will be required, including the more traditional market support measures, and the exceptional measures provided for under the 2013 reform, in order to provide a targeted measure to provide vital liquidity on family farms facing an unprecedented challenge.”