Stephen Carr: Beef is a recipe to lose money

I have just feasted on a rib of Dinner – the first progeny of my daughter’s suckler cow, Mars Bar. As we sat down with friends to eat the first celebratory joint, we laughed over a photograph of her pushing the heifer calf off the unloading ramp of the cattle trailer. In the picture, my daughter, then eight, stands barely higher than the calf. Today, now 14, she threatens to tower over me.

What a long-term job beef production is. It took three years to raise this Guernsey x Charolais heifer calf to maturity, to the point where she could meet her Limousin partner. It took a further nine months to gestate the calf, and two-and-a-half years more for the first calf to reach 378kg on the hook.

As Mars Bar and the admirably unsentimentally named Dinner grew, little did they realise how much the world of beef farming was changing around them. At the beginning of the process in 2002, the single farm payment was still the mere brainchild of EU Commissioner Franz Fischler. The EU’s beef farmers and their cattle remained cocooned in the comfort zone of production incentives.

But by the time Mars Bar was old enough to produce her first calf, the economic climate for beef production had chilled more quickly than a beef carcass at the end of the killing line in a modern slaughterhouse. Decoupled from her suckler cow premium, Mars Bar’s first offspring emerged shivering into a cold world without beef special premium extensification premium or slaughter premium.

The end value of the bullock now has to pay for the entire production process, so there is going to be an awkward conversation between the young farmer and her senior partners – mum and dad. What money, she is already interested to know, is due to her for all the hard work she has put in?

How ironic that before she had hardly got started, the UK government, supported by farmer organisations, should rush into the folly of decoupling Mars Bar from taxpayer support while, just across the Channel, France – a country with more than 21% of all the EU’s cattle – announced that it proposed to carry on supporting its suckler herds and beef fatteners with production incentives.

The break-even price for suckler beef is reckoned by the various beef pressure groups to be about £3.50/kg. In the week that Dinner was slaughtered, average GB steer prices were £2.75/kg. So when my daughter comes to open her envelope, she will receive, in the end, not a cheque but a bill for £283.50 – the financial loss that the rearing of her first bullock represents.

You may think this harsh, but successful farming absolutely demands such an approach, and I’d rather she learned the lesson now with just a bullock or two than in 10 years’ time with a whole herd of them.

There is increasing evidence that the UK’s suckler beef herd is now in decline. Latest figures from Scotland show a 10% fall in production and there are alarming reports from British abattoirs that they have seen a 20% increase in cow throughput this year, “many of them sucklers capable of breeding more calves”.

We all love to farm, but, as I’ve said ever since decoupling took place, aspiring UK beef farmers of all ages need to receive profits instead of losses for their trouble. Otherwise, Dinner and his younger brother, Sunday Lunch, will be produced not by “Les Rosbifs”, but by French farmers’ daughters still enjoying coupled subsidy incentives.

See more