Prof Gerry Boyle is right about dairy-beef — but pitching beef against dairy is bad for the whole farming sector

Michael Brady.

Agricultural Consultant and managing director at Brady Group: Agricultural Consultants & Land Agents. The Lodge, Lee Road, Cork. `1st published in the Farming Independent 28/09/2021

Ní neart go cur le chéile (there is no strength without unity) is old an Irish saying.

Presently the negativity projected at famers, primarily in respect of environmental matters, appears to be never ending. Greenhouse gases, water quality, biodiversity and animal welfare are the measures in the spotlight by the environmental pillar and the media in general.

However, a much more worrying feature of the current debate is farmers turning on farmers.

Professor Gerry Boyle of Teagasc recently got slated for suggesting that suckler beef farmers should consider dairy-beef as a feasible alternative. Of course, the reason is that dairy-beef is much more efficient from a greenhouse gas emissions point of view.

The comments ignited a storm in the beef sector, in particular questioning Teagasc commitment to suckler beef. Some saying that Teagasc has abandoned the beef sector in favour of the dairy sector. Nothing could be further from the truth, Teagasc have world-renowned beef and dairy research programmes. 

It’s not Teagasc’s fault that dairy profitability is significantly better than beef profitability, that’s just the financial return from the market.

The reality is Professor Boyle is 100pc correct to make such a suggestion.

Teagasc is an independent research and advisory body and he was simply giving advice. The fact that many suckler beef farmers and their advocates do not like his advice is not his problem, it is up to each individual suckler farmer to decide if they wish to consider the dairy-beef option or not. This debate is just an excuse to pitch beef farmers against dairy farmers, there are no winners on that path and its certainly not good for unity in the industry.

The real battle is to convince the non-farming public and the environmental pillar that the agri-food industry can tackle the climate change challenge in this country. 

However, many people within the industry misread beef farmers in that they preach to them about their lack of profitability and that they should be motivated to make more money. The average beef suckler has 17 cows, rears calves to weanlings and has a fulltime job, economics is not the motivating factor.

Contrast this with the average dairy farmer, who now milks almost 100 cows, is farming fulltime and enjoying the most fruitful period of being a dairy farmer in the history of the State. The motivation here most certainly is economics.   

Now let’s look forward to motivating factors in the new EU CAP reform to commence in 2023. How will suckler beef and dairy farmers react to the proposed new eco schemes under pillar 1 and agri-environmental schemes under pillar 2. It is important to point out under EU rules all such schemes are meant to be cost neutral to the participating farmer i.e. there is no scope to make profit from such schemes.

The 17 cow sucker farmer will first ask if there is a financial benefit to participating in the schemes, assuming the answer is no, as highlighted then this evokes a negative motivation to partake. The next question is how much work and time is involved, heavy time commitments are another demotivational factor. The glory days of generous payments in the old REPS Scheme with minimal work input are long gone, the EU has moved on but suckler beef farmers have copped-on, and will question entering such schemes in future.

Contrast this with the mentality of the 100 cow dairy farmer, who is faced with the possibly of reduced stocking rates due to lower chemical nitrogen usage under the proposed new Nitrates Action Plan and with the possibility of a herd quota due to the methane emissions issue. The motivation is here is to invest and participate in all such schemes to future proof and develop the farm business.

The lesson here is that beef and dairy farmers are on two very different paths, there is no point comparing and contrasting, it’s a fruitless exercise. Yes, there good and not so good farmers in both enterprises but there is no point pitching them against one another   

My suggestion is that we should develop and offer a ‘National Cow Retirement Scheme’ which is attractive to both suckler beef and dairy farmers. A well-designed scheme will allow farmers considering retirement to exit in a dignified manner and it could also be used to encourage these suckler beef and dairy farmers to consider entering the dairy beef enterprise as suggested by Professor Boyle. Combine this with a clear path to trading carbon credits from these farms and a whole new chapter is opened for the future of beef farming.     

 Yes, we all know the value of the beef and dairy sectors the national economy so let’s get creative and develop enterprises, systems of farming and schemes suitable for the climate change challenge.

I am confident science will deliver environmental sustainability in our farming systems, but we must all pull together as the food chain is only as strong as the weakest link.