The recent beef price cuts have been devastating at a time of the year when they normally should be rising. Many farmers have been feeding their cattle especially to finish in time for the Christmas market.
The main demand for the Christmas market is virtually over, leaving finishers frustrated. The average deadweight steer price for the last week of September was 351.1p/kilo. By the week ending November 24 the steer price had fallen to 345p/kilo. With the high price of winter feed, this fall is a body blow for finishers. It is even 4p/kilo less than the corresponding week last year. With the escalating costs this year farmers needed and deserved an increase in price.
Quite a few progressive beef farmers are moving or planning to move into dairying. Increased costs have driven down Suckler cow margins to a breakeven point and in many cases showing a loss.
Winter beef finishers have suffered several winters of dropping beef prices at a time of the year when beef production is at its most expensive. The withdrawal of the ANC payments has shattered the confidence of many hill suckler farmers. That sends a strong message that DAERA does not care whether the hill farmer survives or becomes extinct like the dodo.
On top of that the failure by DAERA to spend any money in renewing outdated beef buildings at Greenmount and Hillsborough while spending millions on dairy buildings at both sites sends a clear message where the priorities lie.
A reduction in Suckler numbers does not cause any concern for the meat plants. They fail to give a true price for those top quality suckler cattle reared in the best environmental conditions. The meat plants realise that an increase in dairy cows will add to the numbers of beef cattle from the dairy herd. While that beef will not match the suckler beef in quality, it will be sold under the green and high quality image of the suckler beef.
It will certainly be a blow to the beef industry to lose some of its best producers, especially young beef farmers. We, farmers, are an ageing population. We need youth with their energy, drive, ambition and trying new methods to keep the industry vibrant.
Dairying has had its highs and lows over the past 20 years. Indeed all enterprises are the same. However of all the grass based enterprises, dairying has come out ahead of the rest. This is clearly indicated by the livestock numbers. In June 1998 there were 287,661 dairy cows. This number jumped to 310,700 by June 2018.
Over the same period the number of Suckler cows fell from 344,704 to 255,900, a fall of 88,804 cows. Similarly ewe numbers fell from 1,449,824 in 1998 to 956,500 by 2018.
Indeed I have been speaking to several farmers who have switched to dairying over the past few years and each of them are pleased that they changed. They do warn about going deeply into debt.
There is little Christmas cheer for beef farmers this year.