Production systems to suit our indigenous resources; a more even supply of cattle throughout the year; concentration on market specifications and development of processing and marketing strategies for bull beef from the dairy herd.

Doris Leeman, Secretary, NIGTA and Claudine Heron, Past President, NIGTA chat to new members of the Association Michael and Gail Redmond at the Grain Trade Quarterly Meeting.
Doris Leeman, Secretary, NIGTA and Claudine Heron, Past President, NIGTA chat to new members of the Association Michael and Gail Redmond at the Grain Trade Quarterly Meeting.

These were just some of the aspects outlined by Phelim O'Neill, Chief Executive of the NI Meat Exporters Association (NIMEA) when he addressed the NI Grain Trade Association at their quarterly meeting.

Market returns to Northern Ireland beef producers increased by 50% from 2.60 to 3.89 a kilo between June 2010 and June 2013, putting the province at number two in the international league of farm gate prices - second only to GB. However all of this good news was negated by increased feed and fertiliser costs combined with poor weather conditions and fodder shortages.

Phelim pointed out that Northern Ireland farmers and their representatives expect higher prices since the GB market is offering excellent returns, and we have preferential status because of our ability to use the Red Tractor logo. The difficulty is that only about half of what is produced here is sold in the GB market, with 20% sold on the home market and the remainder to mainland Europe where prices are much lower. However the European market has historically been a most important outlet and is in the process of becoming so again.

Another factor affecting processor costs is the traditional rush of cattle off grass in the autumn which necessitates processing capacity that is then under utilised during the rest of the year.

Taking the long term view Phelim stated that the red meat industry's role will be to convert its indigenous resources of grass and water to a protein that can be consumed by the expanding global population. In view of the diminishing world resources and population expansion it is difficult to make a case for feeding livestock with grain that could be fed directly to the human population. If there is a case for feeding grain to livestock for human consumption it is likely to be fed to the species that produces the greatest return per kilo of grain, namely poultry.

But as long as there are regions of the world with marginal land that grows grass with an abundance of water, then there is no better way of converting these resources to human food than through beef or sheep production, which suggests a very different industry from today's production systems.

Expansion in the dairy industry will be necessary to feed the increased population and this will result in an increased number of dairy bull calves and the need for processing techniques and market development to cater for these.

Retailer and consumer demand will also dictate the future of the industry with retailers now demanding steaks that fit retail packaging. This demand has prompted an increased interest in traditional breeds which also fit the demand for a return to utilisation of grass and water as the primary feed source.

Phelim emphasised “The challenge for processors is to develop the market to its limit - working closely with their supply base to bring more control to procurement. We have to get closer to suppliers to achieve this - promoting systems that produce cattle and sheep that best fit our environment, that finish to market specification with low input costs and that attract a market premium.