Irish lack premium payment for quality cattle

Irish suckler producer Denis Large may have severely reduced his vet bills and got a tight handle on his costs, but without a change to the beef pricing structure in Ireland many producers, including himself, could be in trouble once subsidies fade out.

“Believe me, I’m not a lover of farmers getting on their soap boxes demanding more money for the sake of it, but things are tough at the moment. The beef price simply doesn’t reflect the quality of cattle going through the factories and we’ve now got to the stage where more beef producers are running at a loss let alone breaking even,” says Mr Large, who runs 150 Continental cross cows in Urlingford, Co Tipperary.

“There is no incentive to spend more on quality bulls, improve your herd health status or quite simply take pride in what you’re doing, when everything is pretty much priced the same.

“I’d like to see a better price incentive for hitting U and E grade carcass specification. Currently there isn’t enough jump between an R-grade and a U or above carcass,” he explains.

Mr Large runs a spring and autumn calving herd of largely Limousin and Simmental cross cows. These are put to a Charolais bull, while heifers are put to an Aberdeen Angus bull for easy calving. “Some 60% of the herd calve in autumn with heifers and bulls finished at about 18 months old. The remainder calve in spring, where heifers are finished at 20 months old and steers are finished at about 25 months old.

“I’d prefer to keep all my male offspring entire as I can finish bulls six months earlier and about 30kg heavier, but the steers work better from a management point of view during the grazing season,” explains Mr Large.

Bulls grade mostly Us with a few Es, while 70% of steers grade Us with the rest R grade. About 70% of heifers grade R with the remainder grading Us. “I’ve worked hard to provide the processor with the type of cattle they tell me they want, but there just isn’t the reward. I currently receive 8-9 cents/kg premium for U and E grades. An extra 10 cents/kg for hitting U and E grade would see us move from breaking even to being profitable.”

But Mr Large is at a loss as to what the next stage is. “I work closely with my nutritionist and I’ve also made huge headway in slashing my vet bills having got to grips with a vaccination policy for BVD and leptospirosis.”

Cows are given minerals, trace elements, an injection of selenium, a copper bolus and iodine in the water to ensure maximum fertility and minimal calving problems. “Vaccination is simply an insurance policy and the more fertile my cows are with fewer calving difficulties the quicker they are to cycle again and get in calf.” The change in health status has also seen a dramatic improvement in physical performance with cattle finishing quicker and 50kg heavier, as well as a reduction in labour.

He is also a strong believer in a strict culling policy. “It costs me €2.20 a day to keep a cow indoors and 50 cents when she is outside, so she has to be paying her way by rearing a calf.” And with cull cow prices about €1100, it pays to be strict.

Machinery and labour costs are also kept to a minimum as he shares both costs with his brother John, who runs sheep and 40 Aberdeen-Angus cows on a neighbouring farm.