‘I bought my first bullock with my Communion money’

Storm Powell visited the Longford/Westmeath Farmers’ Mart in Ballymahon to talk to farmers about the suckler sector and spring’s grass growth surge.

Sean Powell

Ardagh, Co Longford

Sean Powell

Sean Powell is a suckler-to-beef farmer on 180ac. He is also a meat wholesaler. “The government needs to introduce a special aid package to support the suckler sector,” says Sean. “It’s a loss-making venture at the moment. Suckler farmers need a €200 subsidy per cow. Irrespective of Brexit, sucklers will disappear if aid is not provided. Farming is totally dominated by dairy farmers at present and the quality of beef will drop if the suckler farmer is not looked after.”

Whereas Sean welcomes the early grass growth this spring, the wet conditions are preventing him letting the cattle out and he doesn’t know when he will be able to spread fertiliser. “Any surplus fodder will be used up as a result of the wet spring,” says Sean who hopes for an early first cut at the end of May.

If Sean was Minister for Agriculture for one day, he would re-examine the Beef Data and Genomics Programme (BDGP) as he does not feel that it is sufficiently improving the quality of the suckler herd.

Vincent Connolly

Mullingar, Co Westmeath

Vincent Connolly

“Without further support, the suckler cow will disappear and, as a result, the beef trade will fall asunder as good quality animals won’t be produced,” says Vincent who farms 170ac, sucklers and sheep, in Ballynacargy and also works full time as yard foreman in Ballymahon Mart.

“We need a further subsidy of up to €400 on cows if we are to produce a good quality calf,” he says.

Vincent spread over 90 tonnes of lime over the winter months. “Grass growth has been very good and we hope to get our first cut of silage in June. I’ve never had such comfort,” he says.

If Vincent was wearing Minister Creed’s hat for one day, he would endeavour to rein in the factories. “Meat factories have the monopoly and are controlling prices. As farmers, we are at their mercy.”

John O’Hanlon

Ballymahon, Co Longford

John O’Hanlon.

Manager of Ballymahon Mart John O’Hanlon also farms 100ac “sucklers-to-weanlings and sucklers-to-stores” just outside the town in Tipper.

John suggests a more targeted approach to suckler subsidies. Some farms, particularly in the West, are only suited to suckler farming. “Whereas €200 per cow is a good target, it may not be realistic. Could the payment be made to farmers whose land size and usage doesn’t support alternative methods of farming? Schemes need to evolve and improve. The data required for these schemes can act as a barrier to applying,” he says.

Most of John’s land was stripped all winter, “but it’s a bit wet at the moment”, he says. “Grass growth has been good. I hope to cut silage in the first week in June. We are waiting for land to dry and not for grass to grow.”

As Minister, John would explore the possibility of increasing live exports to Northern Ireland. “There is an opportunity to re-launch the live export trade to the UK via Northern Ireland. Post-Brexit, there is no reason why the current EU labelling regulations would still stand north of the Border. The UK authorities can then change the regulations, reverting back to the age-old system of slaughtering ‘Irish born – British finished’ beef.”

John O’Rourke

Robertstown, Co Kildare

John O’Rourke.

John, a cattle buyer, farms in Blackwood with his son John Paul. “When costs and labour are counted, the €40 subsidy is too low. We need €200 a head. People are getting out of sucklers all the time, some are setting the land and young family members are leaving the farm. Something needs to be done urgently.

“This has been a very easy winter compared to other winters. Let’s hope it stays dry as this might help offset some of the expenses. We are planning to cut both hay and silage in June.”

As Agriculture Minister, John would look at improving income for farmers. “I would consider their living expenses, increase subsidies, look at tax incentives and find ways of getting more cash into the farmer’s pocket,” says John.

Tom Slevin

Athlone, Co Westmeath

Tom Slevin

“Income from sucklers is not adequate and we are only breaking even,” says Tom who farms 40 sucklers on 80ac in Glasson and also works full time off-farm.

Tom suggests a straight subsidy of €150-€200 per cow for up to 30 cows on any one farm with certain requirements in terms of quality, health and welfare and environmental issues. “This would cover a lot of suckler farms,” says Tom who adds that the uncertainty of Brexit is having an impact. “Farmers are holding back on decision-making.”

He adds: “Our cows are being let out on grass as they calf. Grass growth has been excellent. We hope to do our first cut of silage in late May/early June.”

If Tom was Minister for a day, he would focus on EU grants and other available aid. “I would not give financial support based on acreage but would rather calculate the activity and productivity of individual producers.”

Josh Wall

Drumree, Co Meath

Josh Wall

Twenty-two-year-old Josh farms with his grandfather Peter Macken in Baltrasna. “We buy in Continental type stores and fatten them,” he says. He is also in fourth year, UCD, studying Agricultural Science.

Though neither of his parents are actively involved in farming, Josh developed an interest from a very young age. “I bought my first bullock with my Communion money.”

Of the suckler schemes, Josh says: “€40 per cow is not enough. Additional aid is vital.”

Josh adds: “Grass growth is up on other years. This will cut costs of wintering cattle, save labour and ensure healthier cattle.” Josh and his grandfather are hoping to cut their first cut of silage around May 25.

If appointed Minister for a day, Josh would open up ports and get dairy beef calves out of the country. “This would make it easier to sell good Continental cattle.”

In the short term, Josh would like to work in some aspect of the agricultural industry and continue to farm part-time. In the long run, he sees himself as a full-time farmer and will “stay in beef if there is a future in it”.

Indo Farming


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