Thursday, 29 March 2018
Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. As I have said on many previous occasions, the wet weather conditions that prevailed throughout much of last autumn and into early winter were difficult for many farmers, particularly in parts of the west and north west. However, the more recent turbulent and prolonged cold spell has created additional difficulties for farmers in all parts of the country.
To address the problems posed by an unseasonably wet autumn, I prioritised the payment of farm supports to assist farmers with cash flow. The European Commission agreed to my request, informed in part by the poor weather conditions of last autumn, for an advance payment of the 2017 basic payment measure and agri-environment measures. These payments commenced at the earliest date possible, which was 15 October 2017, and balancing payments issued in early December 2017. These payments, together with those issued under the areas of natural constraints measure, injected more than €1.4 billion into the Irish rural economy by the end of last year and provided a very welcome boost for Irish farm families, helping to finance additional fodder purchase where necessary.
At the time, I also asked Teagasc to support farmers at risk of a fodder shortage through the provision of fodder budgeting. To provide additional assistance to those livestock farmers severely affected by ongoing fodder shortages, mainly in parts of the west and north west, I introduced a targeted fodder transport support measure, operated primarily through the co-operative structure, to partly offset the cost of transporting fodder between those areas where it is available and those where it is scarce. This measure applies only to fodder purchased in the period from 29 January 2018 to 20 April 2018. To date, only a small number of applications - 15 in total - have been received, but this is not unexpected given that farmers are holding off submitting the completed application forms until they have sourced their full fodder requirements. The scheme has provided an important back-stop to farmers to ensure they have access to fodder at affordable prices.
As I indicated earlier, the continued cold weather has significantly affected grass growth in all parts of the country and caused delay to expected turn out of livestock, with knock-on effects on demand for fodder in all areas. While grass growth is poor, grazing conditions have improved sufficiently to allow some grazing by day where ground conditions permit. Nonetheless, there is concern that with the current low temperatures grass regrowth may be delayed. While stocks of fodder remain available in the country, I am conscious that most farmers are very proactive in managing their feed supplies through meal supplementation and so on. It is critical that farmers who have identified a problem engage immediately with their adviser-feed provider to work through this difficult period.
My officials continue to engage with Teagasc and the industry to ensure their ongoing efforts to support farmers through this current period are co-ordinated and targeted for maximum effect. The key focus of these supports must remain on fodder budgeting, optimising use of concentrates, nutritional advice and, most importantly, grassland management. I will closely monitor the outcome of this ongoing engagement. As we finally come towards the end of a difficult and prolonged winter, it is timely to look forward and put the experience gained to good use. The basic requirement for viability, whether it be on an expanding dairy farm or on a dry stock farm in a more difficult area, is the capacity to conserve adequate winter feed for the livestock numbers on the farm, even for such a prolonged and difficult winter as this has been. To facilitate this, I will ask Teagasc to provide particular guidance on fodder conservation during its ongoing advisory campaign.
I wish to refer to the points made by Deputy Scanlan in respect of the call to my office yesterday. I am not familiar with the details so perhaps the Deputy can pass them on to me. I assure the Deputy and any farmer who finds himself in similar circumstances that I appreciate the mental pressure and the ongoing daily farm management pressures associated with this difficulty. My Department has a capacity to step in and assist individual farmers where there is no fodder and animals require attention. If the Deputy wishes to bring that case to my personal attention, I will ensure that the Department responds appropriately.
I am not out of touch on this issue. I am in the farming community regularly and, in fact, in the past week I have been to two marts in my constituency. I am engaged and I appreciate the issues involved. We are actively managing this issue. We are coming to the end of a very difficult period and I hope that, collectively, we can learn the lessons from this and ensure that adequate fodder conservation is at the heart of the advisory services my Department will deliver to farmers as we face into the spring and early summer of 2018.