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Viewpoint: Like The West Wing, Teagasc must take a wider view to regain trust of suckler sector


The Latin phrase ‘post hoc, ergo propter hoc’ was immortalised in the hit US TV show The West Wing. It means one thing follows the other, therefore it was caused by the other. But, as was pointed out in the show, it’s not always true.

n fact, it’s hardly ever true.

This scene came to mind when I watched outgoing Teagasc Director Gerry Boyle speak at the Dublin Economics Workshop last week, where his comments on the suckler herd have caused a storm in the beef sector and thrown a spotlight on Teagasc’s true intentions for the sector.

Prof Boyle rightly pointed out the growth of the suckler herd coincided with the introduction of milk quotas.

But, like the Latin phrase goes, that doesn’t mean it was entirely caused by the removal of milk quotas.

Much more happened in Ireland in the 90s that better explain the expansion of the suckler herd than purely the restrictions on milk production.

Firstly, to focus solely on the removal of quotas is to assume every suckler farmer would rather be milking cows or rearing calves. This is absolutely not the case.

Secondly, a very important contributor to the growth of the suckler herd can be attributed to the growth of the Irish economy, which provided off-farm incomes to sustain activity on many farms, particularly in the west of Ireland.

Thirdly, but perhaps most importantly, the suckler herd’s growth has coincided with the significant ageing of the farming population and continues to provide many older farmers a means and reason to stay involved in farming.

Finally, the factor that seems to be lost on many of Teagasc’s top brass is that many farmers, not just suckler farmers, but store to beef and dairy farmers, are motivated by more than just euros and cents.

Rightly or wrongly, many farmers are driven by the joy of producing a show-stopping calf or a pen of quality bullocks. It’s what gets them out of bed in the morning.

It’s in this wider context that the suckler industry in Ireland must be viewed and Teagasc must be cognisant of this for their own sake.

It will struggle to fulfil its mandate without holding on to the trust of farmers, and from the reaction I’ve seen and heard to Prof Boyle’s comments, that trust, as far as the suckler sector is concerned, is broken.

His successor will have a tough job winning it back.

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