Seanad debates

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Commencement Matters

Beef Data Programme

2:30 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for accepting the matter. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Simon Harris. My matter relates specifically to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and while I accept it is not within the Minister of State's area of responsibility, I appreciate him coming to give a response. The matter relates to the beef genomics scheme on which I have consulted with suckler farmers throughout most of the north west of the country. The scheme is turning out to be totally unworkable and its implementation threatens the quality of weanling beef output in the north west. I can only provide examples from counties that are close to mine. In Donegal, Sligo and Leitrim some 12,800 farmers were eligible to apply for the scheme but fewer than 5,500 have applied.

The cost of the scheme is €52 million. It was designed to assist farmers but, in effect, the science behind it will adversely impact on the type of weanling that is being produced by farmers throughout the north west. Times are very difficult for farmers in the north west. We have smaller holdings, longer winters and land that is of a lesser quality to other parts of the country but yet have been renowned for breeding the highest quality stock for export and processing for many years.

The Minister of State might be aware, but the Minister will certainly be aware, that in recent weeks farmers are being informed about the grading of the cows. They are finding that the cows that are producing the highest possible quality of weanling are being given a grading of two stars. If the scheme works in the way the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, the IFA at a senior level and the Department seem to want it to work, we are going to end up with a much more maternal-focused herd rather than a paternal one. We need a healthy mix. In the first instance the scheme does not help the small farmers of the north west and the other parts of the country and does not serve to increase the quality of the type of output from the north west, which is already renowned as producing the finest store cattle and replacement cattle in Ireland. Something must be done in that regard.

A total of €8 million of the €52 million will go not to farmers but to the genomics testing. One wonders what the ultimate contribution will be. The Minister of State may know, but the Minister, Deputy Coveney, certainly knows, the money is derived from Pillar 2, in terms of funding under the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP. There may have been a big uptake on the scheme generally as there are very large dairy and suckler farmers in the south of the country but it is not working in the north west. It would be much better for the 12,800 eligible farmers in the north west where testing costs approximately €1,000, if that money were made available through the payment to areas of natural constraint, what is traditionally known as the disadvantaged area scheme payment, which was substantially reduced. It was originally introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s to keep people on the land and to ensure the continuation of production. Production has been of the highest quality in the north west in terms of weanling production. Some 40% of the country’s entire output of young calves comes from the area and that is now under threat. The scheme is unworkable and is costing money. It is not serving the purpose we need it to serve. I appeal to the Minister of State to impress upon the Minister, Deputy Coveney, to undertake a full review of the scheme at least in the north west where it is not working.While I appreciate that it is not the Minister of State's line and while I appreciate him being here on behalf of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it would be remiss of me not to mention while he is here that the announced scheme for villages and towns is a very sad indictment of any Government, particularly this one. It is less than €190,000 per county, per year over six years. Every Government over the past 30 years has been guilty of not adequately resourcing our regions and rural areas to enable them to reach their potential. If any Government is committed to doing that, it needs to think in terms of billions over a six-year period to strategically target resources for the regions to empower them to reach their potential. I hope the Minister of State will take that on board.

First and foremost is the necessary review of the beef genomics scheme. There is €52 million there that I do not believe is going to serve an adequate purpose. It should be diverted, as I have suggested, to the areas of natural constraint or what would have been known as the disadvantaged area payment.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator MacSharry. I am pleased to be here on behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, who regrets that he cannot be here.

The beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, was launched by the Minister on 5 May last. It is part of Ireland's Rural Development Programme 2014-2020 and involves funding of some €300 million over the next six years and builds on the State's investment in data recording and genomics in recent years. It aims to address widely acknowledged weaknesses in the maternal genetics of the Irish suckler herd, reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of Ireland's beef production and make a positive contribution to the future viability of suckler farmers and the national suckler herd.

Beef accounts for 35% of the gross output of the agriculture sector. It is probably the most important product at farm level in Ireland. Beef exports in 2014 amounted to 524,000 tonnes, worth €2.27 billion. The suckler herd is a critical component of this industry. It is beef from the suckler herd that has principally enabled us to succeed on international retail markets. It is important, therefore, that policy at EU and national level recognises the challenges and opportunities facing suckler beef farmers and provides the infrastructure to help it to respond and thrive.

The BDGP is a response to these challenges and opportunities and particularly challenges associated with improved breeding performance, including for maternal traits such as cow fertility, and the very onerous requirements to reduce the percentage of Ireland's greenhouse gas emissions which comes from the agriculture sector. Improving the genetics of the suckler herd can make a positive contribution in both of these areas while also improving the economic viability of suckler farming. The BDGP provides targeted support to suckler farmers and builds on the success of the State's investment of over €9 million in the beef data programme in both 2013 and 2014 and on the success of the pilot beef genomics scheme, which involved investment of around €23 million last year.

Participants in the BDGP will receive a payment of €142.50 for the first 6.66 hectares and €120 for each hectare thereafter, up to a maximum payable hectarage. This is a strong commitment from this Government to the beef sector in Ireland over the next six years. In return for this payment, participants will be required to undertake six actions, some of which will be well known to suckler farmers through their participation in previous schemes. Participants will be required to complete surveys and submit information related to criteria such as milking ability, docility, size and animal vigour. Farmers will be very familiar with these surveys which were previously part of the beef data programme operated in recent years. Participants will be required to genotype animals on their farms which have been selected by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF. The number of animals to be genotyped each year will be equal to 60% of the number of calved suckler cows that the applicant had on his or her holding in 2014. These are known as the farmer's reference animals. I should add that the cost of the genotyping tag has been significantly reduced from the 2014 beef genomics scheme and now stands at €22 - a drop of over 26%.

The replacement strategy that farmers must undertake as part of the scheme requires them to ensure that a certain percentage of the animals on their herd at particular deadlines are of four or five-star rating on the Euro star ratings system. It should be noted that most farmers are already well on the way to meeting the requirement for replacement animals on their herds with significant numbers of four and five-star animals already in scheme participants' herds.

In recent weeks, the ICBF has issued every scheme applicant with detailed reports on the current status of animals in their herds. Participants will receive similar information related to the scheme and their individual herd on an ongoing basis. This is in addition to a training programme which will be rolled out over the next 12 months.Finally, farmers will be required to complete a carbon navigator on their farm with an approved adviser. The carbon navigator will not cost anything for participants to complete and farmers will be paid €166 to attend the training course for their time and expense in doing so.

The Minister does not agree that this scheme poses any threat to the quality of weanling that will be produced in the north west, quite the opposite is true. The data from ICBF and all of the research to date clearly show that progeny, that is, the weanlings, from four and five-star cows perform significantly better than weanlings from one and two-star cows. These cows have more milk, more calves and shorter calving intervals. They produce heavier weanlings which are ultimately slaughtered earlier and with more weight. These are the animals which can add value to farms in the west and we should encourage their use as replacements.

In the context of reviewing the scheme with suckler farmers - the issue Senator MacSharry raised - the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has committed to establishing a group to monitor the operation of the beef data and genomics programme, BDGP, with a view to feeding into a mid-term review. Farm bodies and other stakeholders have already been invited to nominate representatives to this group and it is expected that a first meeting of the group will take place in the near future. This is in addition to the range of clarifications made by the Minister upon the launch of the scheme. It is clear from the large number of applications received for the BDGP that farmers recognise the benefits this scheme can deliver locally and nationally. Just under 30,000 farmers applied to join the scheme and the small number that have since exited it, equivalent to approximately 2% of applicants, is in line with previous suckler-based schemes run by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

I reiterate, on behalf of the Minister, Deputy Coveney, that the BDGP involves an investment of €300 million in addressing some of the key challenges facing the beef sector in Ireland. The BDGP is the first measure of its kind anywhere in the EU and will place Ireland at the head of the international market place as a producer of high-quality, environmentally-sustainable beef. It will also boost promotional initiatives such as Origin Green, which has been a central part of Bord Bia's marketing and promotion strategy in international markets. This scheme is to be welcomed and I think the large number of applications received confirms this. The Minister now believes that we need to move ahead with implementing it to ensure we gain the most possible for the large number of farm families concerned.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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A brief question from Senator MacSharry.

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his response. Sadly, however, I disagree with most of what has been given to him to provide in his reply. I would like to bring some of the people from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, to a few marts, and perhaps Senator Comiskey could come along with us, because what was said is not what is being borne out on the ground.

The other thing that phases us in the north west is the risk of land abandonment. We need to keep these producers at work, so supports are required. The IFA is a great organisation and probably the best when it comes to lobbying. There are many IFA members in our part of the country, but their leadership - including Kevin Kinsella, the director of livestock, and others - have sold out the north west when it comes to the implementation of this scheme. He is admitting as much to people at the ploughing championships this week by saying, "Look, sure we can't change it now and that's it."

I appeal to the Minister of State that, rather than wasting this money, he should talk to small farmers in the north west who sometimes find themselves all too under-represented by the big farming organisations. He could thus see how best we can channel the necessary resources to them to increase their output at the appropriate quality. This scheme is threatening that quality. It is sadly proving to be extremely unworkable for farmers on the ground.

Photo of Simon HarrisSimon Harris (Wicklow, Fine Gael)
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It is appropriate that in the week of the ploughing championships we should have an opportunity to discuss agricultural matters in this House. I, therefore, thank Senator MacSharry for affording us that opportunity. I will certainly convey his views to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I reiterate that the RDP will be subject to a mid-term review. All schemes are subject to monitoring and are reviewed on an ongoing basis. This scheme will be no exception. As I said, stakeholders, including the relevant agencies and farm bodies, have been asked to nominate representatives to a group to monitor the operation of the BDGP.