Thursday, 29 March 2018
Topical Issue Debate
This grouping of Fianna Fáil Deputies has come together jointly to put this Topical Issue to the Minister in order to try to stir him to recognise the very real fodder shortage across the country. Unfortunately, the Minister has shown himself to be very much out of touch with the farming community in respect of how serious an issue it is, having spent most of the past number of months denying the fact that there has been any shortage of fodder.
Given that Sunday is 1 April, it must be clear, even to the Minister, that there is a very real problem. I hope in his response he will at last recognise that there is a fodder shortage in the country and that it is long past time he did something about it. Unfortunately, the transport subsidy scheme he announced a number of weeks ago has shown itself to be a folly and not a worthwhile exercise. Indeed, it is something which was wrong-headed on the Minister's behalf. There have been only nine applications. The Minister's decision to subsidise the transport of an already short fodder resource from one part of the country to another defies logic when what should instead have been introduced was a meal voucher targeted at those in need.
As we now come into a very late spring, the whole country is in need and no part of the country has fodder to spare. The Minister's attention now needs to turn to making contingency plans if the poor weather continues and growth continues not to happen. He needs to make contingency plans to ensure fodder can be transported from outside the country. Will the Minister update us on his reports from Met Éireann on weather forecast projections and on whether this cold spell will continue? We need action and we need the Minister to intervene and to ensure this crisis is recognised. He must do something to assist farmers in need.
There has been no empathy from the Minister's side with the farmers who are struggling to survive as the cold, wet weather continues unabated and poor soil conditions prevent them from putting cattle out to grass as we approach April. Grass growth is running at 50% of the normal levels, and Teagasc has said that another two weeks of feeding fodder from already depleted reserves will result in severe shortages. The Government's transport subsidy scheme has been a gigantic failure, with just nine applications to date. The Government has totally misjudged the situation. The Minister has been absent on the job and has gone into hiding as the severe weather conditions continue over the winter and now into the spring. From day one, since the crisis emerged last year, Fianna Fáil, particularly my colleague, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, has called for the meal voucher scheme to be set up for affected farmers. Teagasc has been advising farmers to prioritise the feeding of meal concentrates to plug the gap. As it is a grain-based product, there is no shortage of supply and it would reduce the demand for fodder. However, the Minister's short-sighted scheme completely ignores this option, focusing solely on fodder transportation, therefore driving up the demand and the price.
Farmers are on their knees, and no more than any other constituency, Cavan-Monaghan is very much dependent on the agricultural sector, as the Minister will know from his many visits to the constituency. I have on numerous occasions heard Deputy Charlie McConalogue push and push for this meal voucher scheme and it has been totally ignored. As the Minister can see from the number of my colleagues in the Chamber, there is a huge emphasis on this right across the country, not only in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan. It needs to be addressed urgently.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important subject for discussion. The Minister may remember that the last time I and others here had this subject up for discussion as a Topical Issue, I instanced the huge length of time people had to have cattle indoors. Some dairy farmers in my constituency, Cavan-Monaghan, had cattle, particularly cows, in from the end of July. The long winter of rainfall and, in more recent times, severe storms has contributed enormously to the problems on farms. There was a fodder shortage even before the bad winter. Today I spoke to farmers whom I would regard as very progressive in both Monaghan and Cavan. They instanced to me that there was a heavy frost once again last night, growth is at least three to four weeks behind normal, there is no fodder, farmers face a severe income crisis and they are very concerned.
Again, Deputy McConalogue mentioned, as I did on the previous occasion, the need to introduce a meal voucher scheme. That was the one way to ensure one would get the full benefit of the taxpayer's assistance to the individual farmer. I appeal to the Minister again to give that direct assistance to farmers. Many of them are out of fodder, there is no growth, there is no grass, the weather is cold and miserable and they face a real financial crisis. We must remember that from late July and into August, some people have cattle housed. What a length of time to face these difficulties. Along with the income crisis, they face the fact that there is no fodder available. The only way of providing practical assistance is through a dedicated meal voucher scheme. The farmers to whom I spoke do not want handouts, but at this time they need assistance to remain viable.
In my own county, Councillors John Paul Feeley and Seán Smith tabled a motion on this at the recent council meeting. They told me that following some media coverage they got a huge number of calls from farmers concerned. Similarly, in County Monaghan, my colleague, Councillor Séamus Coyle, raised this issue at a meeting of the Ballybay-Clones Municipal District.
Again, he received a huge number of calls from concerned farmers about the difficulties they face.
This is an issue I have raised quite a number of times in the House. I am not crying "wolf". We have such a serious problem in the north west at the moment that people's health is being affected by what is happening. Farmers are heading into eight months of feeding stock in houses and there is no prospect that these cattle will be able to get out in the very near future. The subsidised transport scheme has not worked. The price of hay has increased to €40 a bale, that of wheaten straw has gone up to €65 a bale and silage costs €40 a bale. Where supplies were in place, many dealers are not prepared to accept cheques from people who purchase silage, hay or whatever. Part of the scheme is that it has to be paid by cheque and there has to be a record. I can understand why. However, the people who had these supplies would not accept cheques; all they want is cash. They have been caught before, I am sure, by not getting payment from people purchasing hay and straw. There were only nine applications for the scheme. It has not worked.
A constituent of mine rang the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine yesterday. He was put through to a very nice girl who tried to console him. This man is at his wit's end. He is not alone but his is the most serious case about which I have heard. He is in such a state. He has no money left. He is on farm assist. He has no credit anywhere. He has cattle and he told the girl yesterday that he was thinking about shooting his cows and shooting himself. That was in the Minister's Department yesterday. The official was very good and kind to this man and told him that she will help him as soon as she can. That is a fact. There are not many people in that state but they are not far off it.
There must be recognition that there is a crisis. It has been caused by a very wet autumn and an extremely late spring. In some parts of the country, fodder was going to be scarce even if we had an early spring. The situation has become seriously exacerbated. There is a welfare issue on farms at present. The farming press carried its main story on that last Tuesday. It is going to be become more serious as April progresses, with a serious lack of food out there for our animals.
There is also the mental strain that farmers are under. Both financially and mentally, farmers are drained after this extremely long winter. They have not got the cash to purchase feedstuffs and even if they had, feed is extremely scarce. It is not hindsight to say that we told the Minister that the transport subsidy was the wrong way to go. At the time, we strongly pushed for a concentrate subsidy. All we did was move fodder from one part of the country to another without extending the supply. We are now in a position where fodder is just not there and concentrates will have to be used. Concentrates are going up very substantially in price even as we speak. I saw a quotation from a miller today to the effect that, from 1 April, the price charged will increase by €25 per ton.
The Minister is being quoted in respect of comments he made at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine on Tuesday. Some farmers have intensified, on the advice of State agencies, and are carrying a lot of extra stock. They are under extreme pressure and their yard infrastructure may not include the accommodation needed in respect of the late spring we are having. Leaving that aside, we have to play the cards we are dealt. Farmers urgently want help. The help the Minister has to provide is a concentrate subsidy. Men have not got the means to purchase the concentrates and the roughage is just not available.
A Cheann Comhairle, I am not aware of the plight of farmers in County Kildare but the situation in Roscommon, Galway, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim and Cavan is a sad one for many farming families. As the Minister is aware, the weather has been poor since last July. There has been little respite from the wet and cold weather. Before coming into this debate I checked the forecast and at least another week of really harsh weather is expected. As stated earlier, there was a hard frost last night. There is no growth anywhere. According to Teagasc 85% of farmers in the west, northwest and in part of the midlands are affected by this crisis.
In my view, the transport subsidy scheme is a farce. I do not believe it was ever meant to work. The silage is gone, the hay sheds are empty but the cattle sheds are full. For those in the suckler business, calves are being born. I have seen cows and calves on land on which there is no grass. The Minister knows that when farmers are forced to sell livestock at a time of crisis the livestock is bought on the conditions of the purchaser. If this happens, many farmers will not recover. They are already pressed owing to the terrible ground conditions. Farmers are in crisis and this is the last straw. I urge the Minister to take on board the genuine comments made by my colleagues this evening, particularly Deputy McConalogue who has been pushing this issue for some time. We need action.
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.
The Minister's response indicates that he has been sleepwalking on this issue for the past number of months. He still has not woken up to the fact that, as Minister, he must take action and assist farmers across the country who are in trouble. It affects not just individuals, but it is on a collective scale. That requires collective action on the part of the Minister. He must recognise that there is a crisis, and it has been partly contributed to by his lack of proper intervention before now. What are the projections from Met Éireann regarding how long the poor growth period is likely to last? It is a couple of days from 1 April. If there is another week or two weeks of cold weather, it will be the start of May before there is growth. There will be desperation on many farms across the country by then. I recall the fodder crisis in the late spring of 2012 and the unbelievable pressure on farm families to try to find money when they did not have it to pay for imported fodder. The Minister must take control of this and show that he understands the problem. Frankly, up to today he has not shown that he understands the extent of this real problem.
There is an urgent need for swift action to be taken by the Minister and the Government to assist farmers in the affected areas. We have called for crisis fodder aid via the meal voucher scheme on numerous occasions. Again, I compliment my colleague, Deputy McConalogue, who has been to the forefront in imploring the Minister since last November to introduce it. Due to the severe weather conditions since July 2017, many farmers were unable to harvest a second cut of silage. The fodder shortages were especially acute in areas in the north west but they have now spread across the country and particularly into Border counties. A Teagasc survey has shown that in the most impacted areas, 85% of farmers have been affected by fodder shortages. It is another example of the Government's deprioritisation of rural Ireland and of farmers who are under so much pressure and threat.
I ask the Minister to do something about this and take action to address the fodder crisis.
I refer to the phrase "grassland management" in the Minister's reply. Unfortunately, from the two counties I represent there will not be a problem in managing grass for some time this year; it is cold and miserable and there is no growth. It is a delayed season. The Minister also spoke of the capacity to conserve adequate winter feed for the livestock numbers on the farm. The problems are compounded by the long winter and the fact that a lot of farmers in my type of terrain, and maybe in the Minister's own part of Cork, did not get their second cut of silage.
During the last Topical Issue debate on this matter, I instanced the last days of October, when I happened to be travelling throughout much of counties Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh. People were cutting silage during those days but were bringing in as much clay as grass. The value of what they gathered up probably did not pay for the price of the diesel. It was so-called fodder. Many farmers had hoped the weather would improve in August or even early September in order that they could get a second cut of silage, but they did not get it. They housed their cattle from July and could neither get that second cut of silage nor make their hay late. This has all compounded the problem, as have the very long winter, the rainfall, the severe storms and the current cold weather. There is no prospect of an early growth of grass. I appeal to the Minister to give urgent consideration to the request that we have genuinely made on behalf of the farming communities in the areas we represent. Assistance must be given directly to farmers as soon as possible.
I acknowledge the Minister is sincere in what he is trying to do. Everyone appreciates that it is a serious issue. Teagasc is aware of what exactly the situation is like on the ground. They know the people who are in trouble and in bother. While not everybody is in trouble, there are those who are in serious trouble. People are encouraged to call the Department if there is help there. The person I have referred to called the Department yesterday and he spoke to a nice lady who gave him some comfort. The office is, however, closed today and will not be open again until next Tuesday. If this farmer does not receive assistance soon I do not know whether he has enough fodder for his farm to survive. We are trying to help him out in any way we can. It is important. While there are some who do not need it, I agree with the previous speakers that a meal voucher scheme for those farmers who need it should be examined. Where I come from, there will be another month of feeding cattle inside and I do not see anything happening to change that in the near future. I have that man's name and number and the departmental officials have it. They were very courteous and good to him when he called and they advised him the best they could. They have his name and his number. I will not read it out in the Dáil but I will give it to the Minister privately.
I listened to the Minister's reply and while he says he is in touch with the farming community, there is a crisis. As Deputy McConalogue has said, in 2012 we had to import fodder from the UK and this situation is as bad as that. This winter has imposed a huge cost on all livestock farmers. The Minister stated that farmers should be able to budget for their supplies. In some cases, cattle are being fed fodder for eight or nine months. It is incomprehensible that anybody who has stocked up with any kind of intensity would be able to cater for a winter of that duration.
Ground conditions are still extremely poor with very heavy rain again this week. Soil temperatures are extremely low and even if the weather was to improve now it will be May Day before there is any reasonable supply of grass available. This is even in the traditional airy ground where cows would usually be out from the end of February and the beginning of March.
On Tuesday, I drove to Dublin from Tipperary. I saw no herd of cows out anywhere as we came up through the country. This fodder crisis is affecting the poorer land areas and the more intensively-farmed areas.
Farmers are under huge strain. The Minister has given no indication that he will move on a concentrate subsidy. The price of concentrate is increasing by the day and men need help.
I have dealt with the Minister and I genuinely believe he is a sincere man. He has helped me but I am very disappointed with his response. If he knew what we are trying to explain to him, he would try to do something urgently.
My brother has a small family farm. At best, it will be at least three weeks before there is any grass and that would be in ideal weather conditions. The weather forecast for the next week is very poor and there will be no growth anywhere in the country. The south will always be a bit ahead of us in terms of growth, no matter how bad things are. If the Minister wants to come to the area, we will show him how difficult this is. While I do not have a case like that to which Deputy Scanlon referred, I assure the Minister that he is absolutely sincere in what he is saying. The farm organisations have made the case about this to us and they are very concerned.
I do not doubt the sincerity of any of the individuals opposite and have listened with interest to their points. I assure them that the departmental officials and I are actively monitoring this issue on a daily basis. In addition to my own activities in respect of this matter, being in the community, meeting farmers in my constituency and elsewhere, I have taken the opportunity to engage with the agribusiness interests in many parts of the country to find out about the situation in their respective areas. I am reassured by the willingness of those businesses to partner with the agricultural community at this difficult time and to assist with fodder provision and credit lines. That is a strength and hallmark of the co-operative movement.
The message should go out from here that it is alright for farmers to put their hands up now and say they are having specific individual difficulty. From the engagement I have had, particularly with the co-operative movement, I am quite satisfied that there will be a meaningful response from the co-ops to help them.
In the context of the specific case mentioned by Deputy Scanlon, and for anybody else in a similar situation, the Department has the capacity to respond to individual cases on welfare grounds to help farmers who are looking at the back of a silage pit wall, who have no other options and who have cattle bellowing in their sheds. That is a very traumatic and challenging situation. The Department can and will respond, as it has done in the past, in respect of those who find themselves in such circumstances.
I cannot predict the weather. We are tracking daily grass growth on PastureBase. It is significantly below- by a factor of over two - the level that obtained at this time last year. Soil temperatures are also below where they need to be but are beginning to recover. It will take time. We are also getting a handle on fodder levels throughout the country. We are satisfied that there is still a mismatch between where it is located and where it is needed, but substantially adequate quantities of fodder are available. That is why I say to individual farmers to approach co-ops and agribusinesses where they will find a willing ear. The Department is tracking this daily. I am constantly engaging with the officials on the matter. I will take the details of the case mentioned by Deputy Scanlon and follow up on it.