Are we witnessing the beginning of the end for traditional beef farming?

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents. The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork.

Tel: 021- 45 45 120     email:

Over 30 years ago I attended a 2nd year Economics lecture as part of my Bachelor in Agricultural Science degree at University College Dublin, it was delivered by the Late Professor Seamus Sheehy.

As a farmer’s son somewhat green to the economics of Irish Agriculture, I was surprised to hear Professor Sheehy’s description of Irish Beef farmers. He described beef farming in Ireland as an enterprise which was difficult to explain from an economics perspective, beef farmers he said did not make money but yet they continued to farm on.

In the early 1980’s Professor Sheehy famously correctly predicted the EU would opt for milk quotas to control the overproduction of milk across Europe. After 31 years the milk quota era ended in 2015 and it has to proceeded to radically change the face of Irish dairy farming.

The question is, are we presently witnessing the end of traditional Irish beef farming as we know it?

If one agrees with the old British Colonial adage of ‘divide and conquer’, then beef farming in Ireland is doomed, especially if judged by the number of representative organisations defending it today.

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA), Irish Natura & Hill Farmers Association(INHFA), Irish Cattle & Sheep Association (ICSA), Irish Creamery Milk Association (ICMSA) and Beef Plan Movement (BPM) are all competing for airtime and column inches to further their vision for the future beef farming in Ireland.

The first step is surely to join together and present a united front to fight for the cause. It will take a brave member in any of the organisations to promote this suggestion but it’s as clear as night follows day that without unity the beef farmer will be conquered.

If these organisations put their differences aside and formed a ‘united coalition for beef farmers’ just for a fixed period of time i.e. until the end of the next EU CAP reform to negotiate through this critical period, it could be the savour who Irish beef farmer are presently seeking.

The next step is to set out what exactly to fight for. Now, this will be the most difficult task of all, as it’s the very reason why we have so many organisations in the first place, they cannot agree on what to fight for.

This is very evident in the current side show about allocation of funds in the Beef Exceptional Aid Measure Scheme (BEAM). Ultimately no matter how the funds are allocated it will not take Irish beef farmers out the present morass. It’s just a diversion from the core problem.

Going back to Professor Sheehy’s comments, we must first ask ourselves why do Irish beef farmers get up out of bed every day and farm?

In my opinion the 10 reasons why, they are outlined in table 1.

  Table 1:    10 Reasons to be a beef farmer in Ireland            

No Reason Description
1 Tradition Continuing the family tradition.
2 Hobby It’s a preferred hobby.
3 Way of Life It’s the only way of life known.
4 Subsidies Farming to maximise the drawdown of subsidies and premia.
5 Suitable enterprise The only enterprise suitable for the farm.
6 Fear Fear of change enterprise i.e. to Dairy.
7 Pride Stubbornly continuing to farm on, blind to the reality.
8 Debt Fear of bank debt.
9 Mixed Practice a mixed farming enterprise.
10 Profit Net profit excluding subsidies and premia.

Tradition, way of life and as a hobby are in my opinion the top three reasons why beef farmers farm in this country. Maximising subsidies and premia helps fund this obsession, but farming for profit is clearly bottom of the list. We already know this, it is well documented annually in the Teagasc National Farm Survey results from 2011-2018 in table 2.

The average beef farmer (cattle rearing) farmed 31 hectares in 2018, when subsidies are removed they lost on average -€4,791. Now this was supposed to be a terrible year, but the average loss between 2011-2018 was -€3,287! In fact, cattle rearing and sheep lost money excluding subsidies every single year in the period examined.

Table 2:    Net Margin for the main Irish farm enterprises excluding subsidies 2011-2018.

Year Dairy Cattle Rearing Cattle Other Sheep Tillage All
2018 40,142 -4,791 -1,849 -5,043 19,544 14,119
2017 66,741 -1,713 763 -2,559 13,788 13,752
2016 32,420 -1,884 644 -2,238 4,509 6,043
2015 42,102 -488 468 -1,472 9,918 9,135
2014 46,831 -5,043 -4,929 -3,445 2,866 7,503
2013 41,803 -6,169 -3,028 -6,838 2,371 5,963
2012 26,826 -3,254 -3,337 -2,122 9,239 4,677
2011 45,209 -2,954 -2,222 -685 9,030 6,532
Av 42,759 -3,287 -1,686 -3,050 8,908 8,466

Source: Teagasc National Farm Survey

Therefore step number two; it is important from the outset to recognise that Irish beef farmers do not farm for profit, they farm for tradition or pleasure. Again, this emphasises the futility of the furore over the BEAM scheme and Mercosur deal.

If the ‘united coalition for beef farmers’ formulate a vision for the future based on reality will the perceived demise of the Irish beef  farmers be halted or will Professor Sheehy again be proven right in that ‘most will continue to farm on anyway’.