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