By FWi staff

THE Agenda 2000 beef package is emerging as a direct threat to UK farmers with suckler cows – especially those who try to finish their own calves.

Small hill producers, marginal land farmers and lowland beef specialists will suffer from the constraints imposed by the extensification rules, and will be forced to cut back on cow numbers, claims the National Beef Association (NBA).

“When the revised package was first revealed, the initial impression was that a large-scale disaster had been averted because the suckler herd was not under a massive attack, said NBA chief executive, Robert Forster.

But now that some of the details have been made public, he believes that up to 40,000 active suckler cow units may have to be recalled.

“The twin pressures of un-bred heifers being able to claim SCP and the stocking restrictions imposed through the extensification subsidy will force additional contraction,” he noted.

The depth of their combined impact may not be evident for two to three years, said Mr Forster.

“However, it is already obvious that the UK will be forced to cut back on its quality beef production and that the higher proportion of its outlet will be through intensive systems using bull beef.”

It is estimated that in tightly stocked areas with small farms, only about half would be able to qualify for extensification payments under the new reforms without cutting back on stock numbers.

Under the new reforms, animals that were previously invisible to the subsidy system will soon be classed as a full livestock unit. As a result, in some regions even more holdings might have to cut back, waned Mr Forster.

There could be some relief for the hardest-hit parts of the specialist sector if the £42 million national envelope is paid exclusively on suckler cows.

But in terms of national structure, most damage limitation would depend on whether it is possible to re-define the Agenda 2000 ruling that any female over eight months old covered by SCP quota is regarded as a suckler cow in subsidy terms, noted Mr Forster.

He said that it would help if weaned heifers remained invisible to the stocking rate calculation, but the fact that the extensification limits take no account of land type is crucial, too.

“We are aware that some small hill-farmers will be forced to radically restructure if they are to stay in business and, at the moment, have no way of knowing what tolerances, if any, are contained in the fine detail of the Agenda 2000 document.”