Thursday, 26 November 2009
The suckler welfare scheme is funded fully by the Exchequer. The continuation of the scheme and the level of funding to be provided are budgetary matters which will be decided in the context of the forthcoming 2010 budget and the Estimates provision for the Department. The scheme was introduced in January 2008 and has more than 50,000 farmer participants. It covers approximately 85% of the country's suckler herd. It is expected that payments in 2008 and 2009 will amount to almost €64 million in respect of the 2008 scheme year. Due to the high level of participation in year one, the rate of payment in respect of the 2009 scheme year, that is calves born in 2009, was reduced from €80 to €40 per head. This announcement was made in the context of the allocation of the funding available in the 2009 budget. However, farmers have shown they remain committed to the scheme, which has been successful in meeting its objectives of improving welfare and husbandry standards, building knowledge of herd health and improving the breed quality of the suckler herd.
I acknowledge the Minister's response, in which he referred to the importance of the scheme. Given that more than 50,000 farmers participate in the scheme while 32,000 have participated in Teagasc training and the budget is approximately €250 million, would the Minister not consider increasing the payment from €40 to €60 per head in the coming year because of the difficulties faced by farmers due to recent adverse weather conditions and the state of the market? Farmers have a deep commitment to the scheme but given the reduction in their incomes, an increase in this payment next year would provide a major buttress against loss of earnings in the current climate.
This scheme was introduced in 2008 and the payments issued in 2008 and 2009 were the first under this new stream of income. Funding for the 2009 scheme will be paid early in 2010. We do not know yet what our Estimates will be for 2010 or the indicative budget for 2011. Therefore, I am not in a position to say whether we will have resources for the scheme beyond this year's commitment. That is all for consideration in the budgetary Estimates process. I value the scheme and it has been very important for building on data available through the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, which is also substantially funded by the Department and by industry. It has done exceptionally good work and I fully appreciate the value of the scheme. However, I am not in a position to say what provision can be made for it in the future. The Government will meet the commitments which arose in 2009.
When the scheme was introduced the level of participation was not known. The figure I quoted for the percentage of suckler herds involved in the scheme is extremely high. The initial payment was more than drawn down. The future of the scheme and the level of funding will be finalised in the context of the budget.
I appreciate the Minister's answer. I speak to this issue because of the current importance of the export market. It is a very productive sector and any inputs now or in the next two years will be vital to maintaining productivity and market share. There is a logic to maintaining the scheme. I ask the Minister to give a commitment to maintain the scheme and to review the payment. The Minister mentioned the ICBF. Its recent research, as indicated in the Irish Farmers' Journal of last week, suggests that the cow herd has shrunk by 6% this year. That could have negative implications for the future of the export market.
Is the Minister engaging with the farm organisations to, at least, maintain the scheme and to ensure, if there is a reduction from €80, that payment will continue to those farmers under the scheme?
All the farm organisations have been supportive of the scheme and have lauded its merits. Although it is less than two years old, it has been successful in meeting its objectives of improving welfare and husbandry standards, building knowledge of herd health and improving the breed quality of the suckler herd. The Deputy, quite rightly, raised those issues, which are important in the context of the challenge facing the beef industry of ensuring that the suckler herd does not decline. Unfortunately, there has been a decline in the suckler herd this year. Without the suckler scheme, the decline would have been greater.
I am aware of the importance of the scheme but I cannot make commitments until the budget and Estimates are complete.