Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA) Chief Executive Phelim O’Neill was one of the key speakers at the recent agendaNi agri-food seminar. Courtesy of his presentation, he told delegates that the cattle and sheep processing industry must change.
He added: “It has been built over the past forty years on its ability take whatever came off local farms and find a market for it. I used to think that was its great strength. Now, I am not so sure. When we look across at other sectors, I cannot help but think we would be in a better place of our processing sector did more to shape what comes off our farms and, thankfully, I sense they have begun that journey.
“If one takes poultry as an example, it is amazing to think that we have fallen from thousands of farms keeping birds a generation ago to a few hundred today. I can never envisage red meat going that way, given our land ownership structure, but I can envisage a future where smaller often part-time farmers produce and rear the calf [before] transferring it to finishers to enable them bring the animal to factory specification and enjoy a benefit of scale in the process.”
According to the NIMEA representative, the nuts and bolts of how the red meat industry can improve will be through the professional measurement of its performance.
“For half a century, successful beef and to a much lesser extent sheep farming was characterised by how well a farmer could manage his subsidy harvest,” O’Neill commented. “It is less than a decade since a re-focus had to take place and it has been slow but it is also an opportunity to develop. We should never again link production to subsidy just for the sake of it. Any future support must be accompanied by conditions that set the industry on a course which will ultimately put it in a better place. The suckler cow welfare scheme and its recent replacement are good examples of using support as an incentive to steer the industry in a direction of improvement.”
Phelim went on to point out that “knowledge is power” is a saying and it is true in the redmeat industry as well. “Recently, we began capturing animal performance data in meat plants through a Bovis scheme,” he further explained.
“We need to get this information back to farmers and extend to the sheep industry as well. Losing a liver in the factory may not seem like an issue for many farmers yet it is a revenue stream that is lost if it has been condemned for fluke or any other reason.
“Markets have been performing relatively well of late. But we can never be sure that it can be sustained. We always need to be trying to improve whether it is through looking further out into the world or seeing if we can brand our produce and add further value that way.
“To grow our beef and sheep industries, we need investment,” he added. “That is no easy proposition given the relative lack of profitability in our sector over a prolonged period. However, as farm land values demonstrate, there is an appetite for farming and agriculture but much of our pasture hasn’t had serious maintenance and re-investment for upwards of thirty years. Drainage renewal and re-seeding pasture will increase land productivity and grow more raw material for processing. Government assistance targeted in this direction will provide a return.”
The cattle and sheep specialist also confirmed the unacceptable level of animal losses each year within the industry.
He concluded: “These are a liability and loss felt at first hand by the farmer who instead of getting revenue from the animal has a further cost in paying for its disposal,” he stressed. “On top of this, with losses running at 15 per cent, this represents the annual throughput of another factory. Imagine what that would do for the employment number and added value.”