Professor Gerry Boyle has just under two weeks left in his role as director of the State agricultural research and advisory body Teagasc.
It seems he’s not going to go quietly, with comments made at the recent Dublin Economics Workshop angering suckler farmers in particular.
Eoin Burke Kennedy reported in an online The Irish Times article on Wednesday night this week that “Gerry Boyle, director of farming agency Teagasc, said the agency was strongly advocating switching from beef cow production to dairy beef production as part of the State’s response to the climate crisis”.
His comments have created quite a storm in the beef world, with suckler farmers in particular extremely angry at the director of Teagasc’s comments.
Some say it only confirms the Teagasc stance on suckler beef over the last few years and the organisation’s continued shift towards servicing the dairy industry at the expense of the beef industry.
The suckler sector contributes a huge amount of economic activity in rural Ireland.
In 2019, a study commissioned by the Irish Farmers Journal by Professor Michael Wallace saw that Galway and its surrounding counties contribute some €700m in output to the economy and 12,400 jobs.
We cannot forget that Gerry Boyle’s position is one of huge influence.
He holds a position on the Climate Change Advisory Council which advises the Government on changes needed to meet climate change targets.
Indeed, in 2019, this same council recommended that an accelerated decline in the national suckler herd was required to offset increased emissions from the dairy herd.
This is despite Gerry Boyle saying in the past that it would probably be “economic heresy” to try to bring about emission reduction targets for the agricultural sector by reducing suckler cow numbers.
As an economist, he should also know the wider benefits of the livestock sector
Reacting to Boyle’s comments, IFA livestock chair Brendan Golden said: “Of all people, Gerry Boyle should know the value of the beef suckler sector to the rural economy.
“As an economist, he should also know the wider benefits of the livestock sector in towns and villages across the country.
“What farmers expect to hear from Teagasc is some support for our suckler herd, which contributes to beef exports of €2bn.
“Our export markets value the quality beef that we produce. The exports will only continue if we implement policies to bring beef farmers towards viability.”
Professor Gerry Boyle’s comments come after spending 15 years as head of the Teagasc organisation.
His comments have disappointed and angered many beef farmers.
Teagasc, as the State body for agricultural research and advisory, has a duty to these beef farmers to provide the best research and advice to help and support them in their business.
There are some who will say that Gerry Boyle’s comments confirm the direction of Teagasc over the last 20 years and that was firmly in the direction of dairy production.
In recent years, this direction of travel was pushed further by a rapid expansion phase on Irish dairy farms fuelled by the abolition of dairy quotas in 2015.
Dairy cow numbers have grown from 1.1 million cows in 2011 to 1.6 million cows in 2021.
During the same period, suckler cow numbers have dropped from 1.04 million to 0.956 million, a drop of close to 100,000 cows in the last decade.
The dairy industry shivers at the thought about talk around national herd caps or culling
Many experts would have predicted a much larger drop due to lower Government supports and reduced margins. Therein lies the real problem.
The dairy industry shivers at the thought about talk around national herd caps or culling.
The simple solution was to strangle an already choking suckler industry through reduced supports from Government and reduced focus from Teagasc on the sector.
Even though suckler cow numbers have remained stable, we have seen the gradual reduction in drystock advisors around the country, with just 32 business and technology (B&T) drystock advisors working in Teagasc.
Beef research has also taken a back seat in recent years, with continued issues filling research posts in Teagasc, Grange.
National kill changes
During the last 10 years, we have seen huge changes in the makeup of our national herd. In that period, we have seen the national cattle kill move from 60% suckler-40% dairy to 40% suckler-60% dairy.
This has happened due to increasing dairy cow numbers and decreasing suckler numbers. Nobody can argue that, for many farmers, moving to dairy production or expanding their existing dairy enterprises was the right decision, but it’s not for everybody.
While Gerry Boyle can paint with broad brush strokes and advocate a switch from sucklers to dairy beef, for many farmers, it’s not that simple.
All of the Teagasc research on dairy-beef systems is centred around growing 12t of dry matter/ha of grass and higher.
Yet, we know that the average drystock farmer is growing somewhere around 5t to 6t/ha. Have we research showing the economics on this farm? If there is, I haven’t seen it.
Teagasc dairy-beef campaign
Boyle’s comments also come as Teagasc is set to embark on a huge campaign around dairy-beef systems.
I’m told that this campaign has taken up a large proportion of Teagasc’s drystock budget and it aims to highlight the positive aspects of dairy calf to beef production to suckler farmers over the next few months, ahead of spring 2022 calving.
Teagasc is also in advanced stages of setting up a huge 600-head dairy calf to beef demonstration farm in Tipperary in conjunction with a dairy co-op and a meat factory, again to demonstrate the positives of dairy-beef production.
I believe there is an opportunity for beef farmers to make dairy beef part of their production system but run alongside sucklers and not at the expense of them
Ireland needs to be very careful about putting all its eggs in one basket. I believe there is an opportunity for beef farmers to make dairy beef part of their production system, but run alongside sucklers and not at the expense of them.
Marketing is one aspect we need to look at. If we look at any other European country without a suckler herd, their beef tends to be in a lower tier in terms of price.
We have built up markets on the back of the suckler cow brand and yet there are now calls for a switch to dairy beef.
Looking forward to the next 10 years, there is an increased likelihood that calf exports could come under pressure.
If there was a ban on live exports next week, how would the dairy industry cope with 100,000 extra calves on farms?
We know that calf slaughtering is not the answer, so how do we deal with it. The experts seem to think that they will line up the suckler farmers for them, but it may not be that simple.
We are very lucky to have Teagasc, an independent advisory and research body, and it’s very unfortunate that there are some progressive beef farmers questioning the relevance of Teagasc to them in the future if this is the direction that Teagasc wishes to take.
At the moment, there are some pressing issues and questions that need to be answered by Teagasc: