Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine

Teagasc Annual Report 2018: Discussion

Professor Gerry Boyle:

I will take some of the questions and my colleagues will chip in as appropriate. To start in reverse, Deputy Stanley raised the point about energy. To answer his specific question, yes, Teagasc has a role in it. The development of energy in agriculture and the use of biomass in particular has been very much affected by policy. We have gone through a number of phases in our research work on energy over the years, which has mainly followed the ebb and flow of policy. Specifically, we have mentioned the importance of energy efficiency in our marginal abatement cost curve as one of the mitigation options, although, as Deputy Stanley is aware, agriculture does not get the credit in terms of savings in fossil fuels because it is attributed to the energy sector at present. This is one initiative.

Early in the new year, we will commission a demonstration of an anaerobic digestion unit at our site in Grange. It is designed to utilise grass and other feedstock. It is mainly about the utilisation of grasses. It should have happened before now but, unfortunately, construction was affected by Carillion going bust a couple of years ago. I hope it will be completed prior to June next year. The whole point is to address exactly the issues about which Deputy Stanley is concerned. There is definitely potential for anaerobic digesters to use our grasslands and our ability to grow grass. The investment is very costly at present. If we look at the marginal abatement cost curve we identify this option as among the most costly mitigation options. There is also an issue with regard to the feed-in tariff if we were to convert, as we will be doing, the gas to biomethane, which will then be capable of being fed into the grid. The willingness of farmers to undertake this will depend very much on the feed-in tariff they get. We are aware of these issues. We are working very closely with Gas Networks Ireland and we intend to use the plant as a demonstration facility.

We are doing a lot of work on milk cooling. One of our foremost young researchers is featured in the staff profile on page 34 of the annual report. He is someone who has been highly trained, including in the United States, on cooling systems for milk and reducing energy utilisation.

On our own farms our plan is to install solar PV panels starting with our dairy farms and colleges and research firms. That project has commenced with an assessment. There is a lot happening on this. Mr. O'Mara will pick up on the point on the disease risk associated with slurry use and pathogens. The issue of antimicrobial resistance is an increasing concern. It is not just a concern for agriculture. As the Deputy said, it is a concern for the Department of Health, and the so-called one health strategy is very much to the fore.

Moving on to Deputy McConalogue's points with regard to the beef sector and the fundamental challenge of profitability in that sector, this is a long-running saga. This year has been exceptionally challenging, particularly for our top beef producers. I cannot think of another year in recent times where our best performing beef producers have had such a difficult situation. If we stand back from this year and look at the history of the production with regard to fattening and rearing, based on the Teagasc national farm survey, which is a positive outcome at one level, there is a small group of farmers who are able to make good profits from rearing and slightly higher from fattening but they are a very small group and they tend to be larger-scale producers operating to a high level of efficiency. It is possible to generate a net margin before single farm payment and other direct payments of in or around €500 per hectare. That is the key target. Unfortunately, the vast majority of beef producers do not generate a positive net margin. The unfortunate consequence of this is that too many of our beef farmers eat into their single farm payment and that does not make sense. We have been reflecting on this.

We will continue to work with those farmers who are receptive to new technology and so forth, or farmers who are generating positive net margins, but we have to recognise segmentation is greater within the beef sector than in other enterprises. We need to address our programmes accordingly. That is where our thinking lies at the minute. For example, there is a very large group of part-time farmers involved in the production of beef. They have particular needs. Some of them are exceptionally efficient but there are others in respect of whom we need to adjust our systems to suit their time constraints. Also, we need specific measures to address the needs of those farmers who may be elderly and who are finding it very challenging to manage their herds and, in particular, to maximise the single farm payment. We need to tailor measures to assist those farmers with the aim of maximising the retention of their single farm payments. My colleagues may pick up on this because it is a major preoccupation at present. It has been for a number of years. We have a number of programmes under way.

The Deputy also raised the issue of part-time programmes. Thankfully, we have moved through the heavy demand phase for part-time green certificate programmes. There was a period during which there were enrolments of 1,500, which was three times the normal rate. It is now more manageable. We have not yet migrated the part-time programme to the full-time programme. There is a different programme in operation. That transition will commence shortly or certainly in the new year.

The Deputy also raised the issue of sexed semen. I will leave that Dr. O'Mara. We issued a breeding statement on 3 December. It is on our website. There was a significant change from last year in regard to the use of sexed semen. We have advocated that it should be used, where possible, for breeding dairy replacements. If using Jersey genetics, the recommendation is to use only sexed semen. We will be implementing that advice on our own farms. There are obviously issues in regard to the availability of sexed semen, particularly fresh sexed semen. Dr. O'Mara will take that up.

I agree with the Deputy's implication that dairy expansion should be seen as a positive development, not only for the dairy farmers. The expansion in dairy can be leveraged for the benefit of other farmers, particularly traditional dry stock farmers. We are certainly promoting a number of initiatives in that respect. There are opportunities but there is a challenge in communicating them to farmers. We agree wholeheartedly that one of the key implications of dairy expansion is that it cannot be to the detriment of, or create problems for, our beef industry. Many of these points were also raised by Deputy Cahill.

A specific point on advisers was raised and I am happy to address it. The Deputy observed astutely that we have a quite satisfactory ratio, although our pig farmer clients would not agree. There is one major difference in that we managed to negotiate a levy worth about €350,000 per annum during the recession when the service was in danger of being abolished. Pig producers rallied around and agreed to a levy, which has enabled us to recruit a good ratio of advisers to pig farmers. It is more challenging to get support for a levy in the other sectors, as I am sure the Deputy is aware. We have a small contribution from dairy but we have none from the other enterprises. A small levy would enable us to put in place additional advisers and researchers.

Salary levels continue to be a major concern for us. Obviously, trying to persuade somebody who has finished a doctorate, which takes a minimum of four years on top of four years doing an undergraduate programme, to take up employment at a salary of €35,000 presents a major challenge. There is a challenge in recruiting top-class staff and retaining them. It tends to be more difficult in some enterprises than in others. We are no different from other specialised groups across the public service, however. It definitely is an issue. We are certainly not able to compete with the private sector, nor would we want to. The challenge for us is competing with the university sector. It has somewhat more flexibility than we do in the setting of salaries.

Dr. O'Mara might pick up on some of the other points raised.