The Cattle Problem For Farmers In Ireland In The 1930's
THE economic condition of Ireland is such that’ one cannot exaggerate
the importance of cattle, and the political circumstances such that one need
not stress their importance.At the risk of boring the reader we
summarise the gifts which make cows indispensable milk, the basis of child-
diet, and an essential adult food; butter,almost indispensable; cream and cheese;
health-giving buttermilk; ice-cream, a “cooler” and refresher, hence a health
factor in summer food. The possible products from milk are not exhausted
when we name casein, a raw material for glue and for a wide range of articles such
as buttons, combs, telephone and electric fittings. The dead animal provides beef,
hides for the manufacture of leather, fats used in the preparation of soaps, blood
and bones for manure. From other parts meat-meal is made for the feeding of animals.
The number of cows in a country depends on the prevailing relative values
of milk products and beef: if the price of milk is more attractive than that of
beef there are more cows. Result : more calves, and in consequence more cattle
when cattle-production is unprofitable. There is here an obvious vicious circle,
for the farmer. Contrariwise, a vicious circle for the consumer results from the
higher value of beef: the farmer concentrates on cattle, has thus less calves
and finally less cattle which forces up the price of beef higher still.
The relative prices of milk and beef depend not alone on their value to the
consumer but on the relative difficulty of producing each. The cattle raiser has an
easy time. The dairy farmer has plenty of work and worry. Cows must be milked
regularly and thoroughly ‘every morning and every evening. There are many
dreaded diseases, for example, tuber culosis, contagious abortion, and mammitis.
Old cows, which are practically valueless, must be replaced by young and
healthy cows which are expensive. The dairy farmer who supplies liquid milk to
cities or towns has additional expenditure. He must have well constructed and
sanitary houses. If he has to supply by agreement a certain quantity of milk he
is continually buying cows to keep his,contract. Apart from costs the dairy’
farmer must be an expert in selecting his herd, while the cattle raiser 4iay succeed
with a passing knowledge of the game.The cow cannot be judged on appearance
alone. One must know her pedigree and the record of her ancestors in milk pro-
duction. Even then there is no certainty. It is a well-known fact that two cows,
whole sisters, may give quite different results both in quantity of milk and in
quality as measured by butter fat. After many generations of successful breeding
the retrocessive factor may be manifested. We may take it, therefore, that
the farmer will not go into dairying unless it is made definitely more attractive than
other branches of the industry.
We have a cattle problem in this country which, in simple language, means
that we have more cattle than we require for home consumption. Whether we are
large consumers of milk and butter or small consumers of beef the fact is that
we require many more cows to supply us with milk products than we require to
produce calves which in due course become beeves. 8oo,ooo cows would be
required to supply our full requirements in milk products. 220,000 of those would
yield enough calves to give us our annual needs in fat cattle.
Whv are other countries not confronted with this problem? Take Germany or France for
instance. They are largely self-sufficient in both milk products and beef. Yet
they have no surplus cattle. They are not large beef eaters, but they do use a
great deal of veal, and therein lies the explanation of their balanced economy.
Our need is export markets for our surplus cattle. Great Britain takes mOst
of them, and Germany amd other Continental countries the rest. Great
Britain imports over 3,000,000 cattle per year, 8o per cent. from the Antipodes
as chilled and frozen beef, and 20 per cent. mostly from Ireland, in the form
of live cattle. This huge market shows signs of decline. There is a tendency in
Great Britain during the last few years to change from beef to mutton. In the
first place, the family Sunday joint is disappearing. There is no family or if
there is some of them g~ motoring, cycling or hiking for the week-end.
Others are led astray by that horrible craze for slimming. Others again are
persuaded by magazine diéticians that less meat and lighter makes for I better
Ireland is alloyed by quota to export to Great Britain only a certain number
of cattle per year. Our own people are limited physiologically and economically
to the consumption of a certain quantity. Other external markets can only be got
by barter Trade Agreements. One can see the possibility of producing more
cattle than we~ Can dispose of and one can imagine the consequences to the
producer. To avoid this situation the advantages of inducing our own people
to turn from beef to veal were obvious.
To satisfy a given number of appetites with veal instead of beef would require
four or five times as many cattle. To make veal more popular it was con-
sidered necessary only to make it cheap. Towards this end a bonus wa~ offered to
the victualler on every calf slaughtered for veal. This was paid by way of
bounty on calf skins exported. The object in mind has not been achieved,
however, owing to a deep prejudice against veal amongst our people.
The problem of the old cow was not so acute while consumers in industrial areas
in Great Britain were less particular about their menu than they have recently
become. The British Government have at the same time made stringent regula-
tions with regard to the health and condition of cows imported and, as a result,
old cows became almost worthless. In order to make some use of these animals
a factory was constructed at Roscrea which turns out meat meal, fats for soap
making, and many other useful articles for manufacturers.
We do not use very much canned meat in this country and, comparatively speak-
ing, not a great deal of meat extracts. To such extent as we require canned meat
and to some extent in the case of meat extracts we are now producing them from
native cattle in Waterford. Potted meats and meat pastes are also manufactured at
home from Irish cattle. Notwithstanding all these measures
there were and still are more cattle than we could dispose of. It was decided to
distribute beef to those in receipt of Unemployment Assistance and Home
Assistance. Under this scheme roughly i,ooo cattle per week have been absorbed.
It has been argued that less cattle exported would mean less tillage, that a
proper rotation of cropping is impossible, without the necessary farmyard manure
and that, in fact, the desire to grow the country’s requirements in wheat would
be frustrated unless a large export of cattle is maintained.
I see no practical value in those arguments which seek to show disaster ahead
unless the export trade for cattle is maintained. If there were an attempt to
interfere with that trade there would be some reality in the controversy. If, on
the other hand, outside force compels reduction of exports the argument be-
comes purely academic. Even if the worst should come, does it mean ruin? France
does not export cattle or milk products and yet she grows all t~e wheat she
requires. I have no doubt the French farmer observes all the rules of good
husbandry, that he rotates his crops properly, and that he maintains his land
in good condition. We too can grow much more grain without in any way
increasing the acreage under roots and still maintain proper rotation.
If I were asked to describe an Utopia for cattle producers I would picture a pros-
perous people purchasing more and more milk and butter, and plenty of beef, with
an open market for our exports,. open to us only and not to others so that prices
would be very, very good. While we may become more prosperous here and may
in time use more milk, butter and beef, we are not likely to get a monopoly of the
export market. Without that monopoly we are tied to world prices, which are not
too good. The export price, if economic laws get their way, will rule home prices.
We must, therefore, take conditions as they are, try to improve them if we are
able, and meet each difficulty that presents itself as best we can.
Written by The Irish Minister For Agriculture Dr. James Ryan in 1936