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Twenty years at ICSA helm
Matt O'Kee e talks to ICSA General Secretary Eddie Punch about the key issues a ecting the
membership today
It's 20 years since Eddie Punch took on the role of
General Secretary of the ICSA, the Irish Cattle and Sheep
Farmers' Association. With a claimed membership of
10,000, the rejuvenated organisation has carved a role
for itself as an advocate for drystock farmers in Ireland.
The ICSA has status as a national organisation, with
representation on the National Economic and Social
Council (NESC), as well as membership of the Farmers
Charter Committee, the National Reserve Committee and
the Social Partnership structure. In a recent interview for
Irish Farmers Monthly, Eddie laid out his organisation's
stances on a range of issues affecting its members.
Price problems
Eddie prioritises price: "It's very difficult for farmers to
have confidence with the huge uncertainty engendered
by Brexit. If you are selling beef this year, you are being
backed into being even weaker sellers than usual and you
see severe and unwarranted price cuts on cattle for finicky
things like having the odd bull in a load of cattle a couple
of day over age. I have seen cattle farmers being paid 3
per kilo for the primest of prime beef. We have seen the
same thing with weight limits and it's pure codology. I
know there is a supermarket specification, but there are
a lot of other outlets, including restaurants which want
bigger steaks and the result is that people are terrified
of going outside of any of those specifications and are
therefore desperately trying to get cattle killed all spring
just to keep within these niggly rules and specifications.
That can make a person a very weak seller. From an ICSA
perspective it is no longer enough for Michael Creed
looking for an EU rescue package if the worst happens
in Brexit because a lot of the damage has already been
factored into the prices that farmers have been getting
since the start of the year."
The ICSA General Secretary outlined the serious situation
in which cattle finishers find themselves in this spring:
"Finishers are taking horrific losses. The price is at
least 30-40 cents per kilo below where it needs to be to
breakeven not to talk of making a profit on cattle bought
last autumn.
"The outlook further on is equally negative. We won't
know until Brexit is settled one way or another, what
the long-term price prospects are for beef selling into
the UK. Either trade tariffs or a prolonged UK/EU trade
negotiation will dampen cattle prices unless something
really positive develops quickly and there is absolutely
no sign of that happening. Add on the potential for price
damage from any Mercosur deal and you would have a lot
of reasons to be worried. There is no way the Irish cattle
sector could survive a flood of Brazilian beef into the EU."
Inconsistent rule implementation
Eddie is adamant that rules are implemented stringently
when it suits and not at all at other times: "We have seen
in the beef trade that specifications are a moveable feast.
In fact, when cattle are scarce, spec becomes almost
irrelevant. But when there is a surplus, specification
becomes a vicious stick to beat the farmer. We need get
back to first principles. A few years ago there was a big
effort to soften those specifications and that needs to be
revisited. Things like the thirty-month age stipulation
and the 420 kilo weight limits. It's totally inefficient to
be trying to kill those animals at lighter weights, while
ensuring that the fat score right as well. With all of those
things you are damned if you do and damned if you don't."
Managing/manipulating supply
Continuing, he warns of the potential for cattle supply
manipulation and points to the ongoing criticisms of beef
factories' perceived ability to control cattle supplies. "I
have brought up this issue many times. Apart from the
factory-owned feedlots there are also large-scale finishers
who are now controlled by factories because they don't
own the cattle anymore. Nobody wants to talk about
that fact but it's out there. What is incontestable is that,
depending on how you look at the figures, somewhere
between five per cent and twenty percent of the national
kill is in the hands of about 300 feedlots. Even though
some of those are independent farmers you can see
how that number of cattle makes all the difference
in determining what you can or can't do in terms of
managing supply. No matter what most beef farmers do in
MAY 2019
MAY 2019