Growing Irish Beef

Family Farm Focuses on Sustainable Production but Faces Regulatory Challenges

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
John Powers spent the afternoon with visitors from around the world, including a number of U.S. producers, as attendees of the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef toured his operation. (DTN/The Progressive Farmer photo by Victoria Myers)

WATERFORD, Ireland (DTN) -- On a cloudy, windy day, a group of visitors from around the world gathered at the generations-old farm of John and Catherine Powers. As a flagship beef producer for McDonald's, they have some experience hosting visitors. John Powers told the group Nebraska ranchers had visited him the week before.

"The sheer size of what they do in other parts of the world is amazing to me," Powers said.

With 400 acres and 200 cows, his farm is considered large by Irish standards. Just like many U.S. ranchers, John said one of his primary goals is to pass this operation onto the next generation, his son Allen, in better shape than he found it. He's turned to the tools of sustainability to help him do that.

"We have a passion for sustainability," he told the crowd. "We're not doing it for the money. It's tradition here for the land to pass down, and today land is very expensive." He noted in his area land sells for 5,000 euros ($5,743) to 6,000 euros ($6,892) per acre, when it's available, which is rarely. In most cases, land is held in a family for multiple generations.

Despite the positive working relationship he has had since 2012 with McDonald's and Dawn Meats -- the nearby beef patty plant he markets to -- Powers told members of the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef that he is struggling under the weight of the country's regulatory pressures. This was a point Powers mentioned frequently.

"Every animal in Ireland has a passport," he begins, referring to the nation's traceability system. The system relies on a metal ear tag and rigorous tracking of numbers each time they move. If an animal moves more than four times in its life, it is not accepted into the buying program. Animals cannot be slaughtered without documentation.

Powers said the government inspection system means a farmer can face a visit from a regulator anytime, unannounced. These officers have a satellite image of his farm, and will measure its perimeter to see if the amount of land matches what he has declared, and his stocking rates. Animals will be counted, the depth of his slurry tanks measured, silage must be covered, and even the number of tires he uses to weigh down the tarps is noted. No artificial hormone use is allowed in the herd, and antibiotic use is highly controlled. Most recently, Powers said he had to buy a new type of slurry spreader, because the one he had has been banned. This came at a significant cost, and the equipment, he added, didn't work.

"Nothing here is thought through, they treat farmers like imbeciles," he complained. "We're overregulated ... and they don't have a clue."

Powers described his farm as having two rivers through it, conservation areas, and annual perennial grasses. Over four to five months in the winter, he collects natural fertilizer from the cowherd. That is applied as a slurry over pastures. He finishes his cattle on wheat, barley, oats and distillers grains. He artificially inseminates all of his herd now, using an easy calving Limousin bull on replacements. Currently, Powers said his production costs are around 3.47 euros ($3.98) per kilogram (2.2 pounds).

Despite the clear frustration, the Powers are here to stay. They can't imagine doing anything else. It's a sentiment U.S. producers will understand.

"You're never going to make a lot of money being a farmer," Powers said. "But the quality of life is important to us. There's no traffic. It's quiet. We love it here. The most important thing to a farmer is to be able to make a decent living, take care of your farm and have it be there for the next generation. That's what we are all about."

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Editor's note:

Progressive Farmer Senior Editor Victoria Myers is in Kilkenny, Ireland, this week, reporting on the Global Conference on Sustainable Beef. The meeting is a roundtable of 234 delegates from 25 countries, discussing how the beef industry can create frameworks to measure and build more-efficient systems from producer to retailer and share that information with consumers. Look for other reports as the week continues.

Victoria Myers can be reached at Victoria.myers@dtn.com

She can be reached on twitter @myerspf

(CC/CZ/ES)

Victoria Myers