Thursday, 13 July 2023
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
9. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the number of farmers with fewer than ten suckler cows in the suckler carbon efficiency programme, SCEP, scheme; the percentage of such farmers estimated to be in the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34528/23]
This question relates also to Question No. 10. I want to ask the Minister about the number of farmers with fewer than ten suckler cows in the suckler carbon efficiency programme, SCEP, scheme. What is the number of farmers in total with fewer than ten suckler cows, and the percentage of those that are in the suckler carbon efficiency programme scheme? When we consider this figure, we will see the scheme is not attractive to smaller farmers.
The objective of the suckler carbon efficiency programme, SCEP, is to provide support to suckler and beef farmers to improve the environmental sustainability of the national beef herd. The programme aims to build on the gains already delivered through the beef data and genomics programme, which finished in December, and the beef environmental efficiency programme by improving the genetic merit of the herd.
I am confident SCEP will drive further improvements in what are already world-class suckler and beef herds. At the moment there are 3,513 participants in SCEP who have reference animals of ten or fewer. This equates to 16.9% of the total applicants who applied for SCEP.
There is a challenge there for some smaller herds in particular. They tend to be cases where they are not dependent on that income, are not full time and when there are fewer than ten in the herd. Often there is off-farm income involved as well where there is a suckler herd of fewer than ten. Therefore, take-up of schemes, not just SCEP, can sometimes be less for a smallholding like that than it is for a larger holding that is more dependent on that income. The scheme is open to everyone and the terms and conditions are the same. Sometimes it is not attractive to those with fewer numbers than it is for those who might have more than ten, 20 or 30 in a herd.
A total of 56% of farmers, which is more than half, have fewer than seven suckler cows. This is 44,292 farmers. As the Minister has said, 3,513 farmers applied for the scheme. This is 8%. The scheme is failing totally to improve the herds of the smaller farmers. Less than 10% of that cohort of farmers have applied. They are not doing anything because a deluxe requirement is required even though very few of those would be finishers.
When a herd goes over 21 cows, there is 60% participation. We must look at the figures and ask why it is 60% in that case and 8% for the others. For many of our small farmers, on condition that they do not finish the cattle or do not have them for the last 90 days, why is the Bord Bia requirement there? I do not refer to the quality assurance requirement, which does not really relate to them because they do not bring the calves to that maturity. Why is the Bord Bia requirement a condition of the scheme? It seems to be putting them off and the Minister is not achieving his objective, which is to get farmers to farm to a high standard. Instead, they are just ignoring the Minister and walking away. From my own experience, very few farmers in the Connemara region of my constituency are in the scheme. Of course, those in the good land region around the Neale and Cross in Mayo and east of the Corrib River are in the scheme, but the small farmers are just walking away. Even though they might take part in the agri-climate rural environmental scheme, ACRES and in other schemes, they are walking away on this one.
I take Deputy Ó Cuív's point. It has always been a challenge to get smaller herds into the suckler schemes. That was the experience with the previous scheme as well. This scheme is much more attractive in terms of pay rates. Last time around, somebody with fewer than nine or ten cows would have received €90 per cow. The payment this time around is €150. That is a big increase in the funding we are giving to farmers who would have fewer than ten cows. If people look at the detail relating to the previous scheme, they will find that the percentage take-up among those with had fewer than ten cows was much smaller. Much of that is related to the fact that the payment in respect of a smaller number of animals would always be lower than that for a higher number of animals. In addition, there is a much higher likelihood that there will be off-farm income involved. A farmer with 20 or 30 cows and 60 or 70 sheep would be very dependent. A a small proportion of such farmers would have off-farm incomes and would definitely not be leaving the €150 per cow behind. We are seeking to make the scheme as strong as possible by increasing the payment from €90 to €150 per cow. The scheme is open to everyone but, certainly, it is harder to get those with fewer than ten animals to apply.
Would the Minister accept that in the same regions there is really low participation in this scheme but really high participation in, for example, the sheep welfare scheme? It is the same farmers but different schemes, one of which has more reasonable conditions for smaller operators.
As I said, part of the Bord Bia scheme is that it is the last 90 days that counts. The Minister is forcing them into a scheme that is not, as it is currently constituted, relevant to most of these farmers because they do not hold them for the last 90 days. I suggest that a condition of the scheme could be that farmers would sell them as store cattle in order that the finishing would be done to the Bord Bia standard. That way, the Minister could have it both ways. He would have much greater participation from the 8% compared with the more than 60% from the bigger herds, although they are not that big. If a farmer has 21 or more animals, he or she will do well. Even for those who have between 11 and 20 cows, the figure jumps to 39%. It is still low but is a lot higher than 8%. As I said, the Minister is leaving out more than half the herds. Of course, those who own them need the money too. As happens with so many schemes now, somebody overprescribed this scheme in the context of small operators.
It is not that we are leaving anybody out. It is open to everyone. Anyone can apply. I accept what Deputy Ó Cuív is stated to the effect that those who have smaller numbers of animals are not applying in the same percentages as those who have more, but it is open to everyone. In addition, we have increased the payments significantly, from €90 to €150.
The objective here is not to get to a point where everyone is selling to a qualified assured farm for the last 90 days. The objective is to have as many farms as possible quality assured so that throughout an animal's life-----
-----its journey is quality assured. As we go forward and as the sustainability ask of consumers across the world and in supermarkets that we are selling to becomes stronger, to be able to say that it is only the last 90 that are quality assured as opposed to the animal's journey that is quality assured becomes something we have to look at in terms of making sure we have a strong scheme and a robust quality assurance system to allow us to maximise the price of that animal. Ultimately, it benefits the farmers and the producers when the price can be maximised.