Seanad debates

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Agriculture Schemes

10:30 am

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, to the House to discuss the issue of the calf investment scheme. Last January, a calf investment scheme was announced, initially for €1.5 million. It was expanded to €4 million. Some 2,500 farmers have applied for the scheme. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Minister's detailed report because I want to know how many farmers received a payment under the scheme. It is a worthy scheme. It gave the opportunity for on-farm investment to farmers when it came to calf rearing. This has been a deficit in the system over the past few years. We have seen a major expansion in dairy and beef herds, particularly on the dairy side. A total of 1.5 million dairy cows will calve in January, February and March and investment in calf-rearing equipment on those farms will be welcomed.

The one drawback of the scheme, which I have mentioned, is that it was announced on 7 January this year. For a three-week period between 7 January and 28 January, farmers had an opportunity to apply for this scheme at the start of the calving season. It was illogical in that sense. It is akin to announcing the Christmas bonus on St. Stephen's Day. If we are to have a new calf-rearing scheme, it needs to be announced in the next few days. Announcing it in January is too late for the industry. The preparatory work that goes into spring calving has begun. Sheds are being cleaned out and washed and equipment is being readied. From 7 January, 1.5 million dairy cows will calve, particularly in my part of the world. That preparation is in full swing at the moment. I hope we have a new scheme and that it is announced shortly in order that dairy farmers who need this equipment will have the opportunity to apply in a timely manner. That has to be in the month of December, allowing an opportunity to have the equipment in place for when the calving season starts in full.

This was a new scheme. It is important to acknowledge it was the first of this nature. Because it was a new scheme, we had to learn from the pitfalls. There were positive aspects but the opportunity is there for a new scheme. However, it has to be rolled out in December to give farmers the opportunity to apply and get the equipment in place so when they have the busy spring period, which is only eight weeks away, they can have the equipment to work through the calf rearing, which has been an important part of the animal welfare issues we have been trying to work through in the past few years.

Covid is another issue. There has been a reduction in labour in farms. This scheme allows for a major reduction in labour. The labour required in calf rearing is immense. By investing in this equipment, labour is reduced. Labour is not there at the moment anyway, but it reduces the opportunity for being caught offside regarding the availability of labour.

I welcome the Minister's report and look forward to responding to him. Will we get a copy of the written statement?

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the calf investment scheme for farmers. I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which he has raised on many occasions before on the agriculture committee and which he has a strong commitment to developing.

This on-farm investment scheme supporting investments in calf-related items opened to farmers last January. The scheme was one of a series of measures put in place in advance of the spring calving season last year with a view to ensuring the best possible calf welfare outcomes. The scheme is fully funded by the Exchequer. A total of €4 million was secured to fund the scheme, which was open for applications between 7 January and 28 January this year. The minimum investment required for the scheme was €1,000, while the maximum investment was €7,500, with both figures excluding VAT. A 40% grant aid applied to applications meeting the terms and conditions of the scheme. This means the maximum grant payment per holding was €3,000.

I am pleased to report that there was a great deal of interest in the scheme with 2,414 applications received. Approvals to proceed with the investments issued to 2,338 applicants. Applications for payment could be submitted as soon as the investment was complete. The final date for the submission of payment claims was extended to 30 September 2020 in light of Covid-19 restrictions. More than 1,500 payment claims were submitted by this date, which is a substantial number. Payments under the calf investment scheme commenced in August 2020 and are issuing on an ongoing basis as cases are cleared by the Department for payment. Any applicant who has been contacted by the Department with a query regarding their payment claim is urged to respond as soon as possible to provide for the earliest possible issue of payment.

With regard to calf welfare, I recently attended a meeting of the calf stakeholder group, which is an ongoing group hosted by my Department, to hear the activities that various stakeholders are taking to support and ensure the welfare of calves born in Ireland each year. It was good to hear the positive contribution of the various participants, including the farm organisations, and that Ireland's position with regard to calf health and welfare compares favourably internationally.

I was pleased to note the ongoing research initiative by the Department and Teagasc on the issue of the transport of calves and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation-Teagasc projects on enhancing dairy/beef integration efforts.

It is also important to point out that the Department continues to operate a large on-farm investment scheme, namely, the targeted agricultural modernisation scheme, TAMS. TAMS comprises a suite of seven measures and was launched under the Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, with a budget of €395 million over the full period of that programme. To date, expenditure under TAMS II has exceeded €242 million. Under the young farmer capital investment scheme, additional support is available for young trained farmers and they are offered a higher rate of grant aid of 60%, compared to the standard rate of 40%. Payments under the TAMS II scheme continue to issue on an ongoing basis.

I encourage all approved participants who have completed their investments to submit their payment claims. I also urge any calf investment scheme applicants with any outstanding query from my Department to respond as soon as they are able to do so to allow for the early issue of payments under the scheme.

Photo of Tim LombardTim Lombard (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response. I take it that 838 applicants still have not responded to the issue. In fact, it is more. Does he know how much money is left in the budget pot? How much is unclaimed? Is there a proposal in the Department to have a new scheme? Does the Minister think a new calf investment scheme will be announced in 2021? Does he think it will be announced at an earlier date than this year? Will there be any calf investment scheme? The uptake of this scheme has been amazing. The interest from the agricultural community in my part of the world is very much there. I am worried that we will not have a scheme this year. It is important that we do. Will the Minister clarify if he is proposing to have a scheme for 2021? If so, when will he announce the dates?

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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I do not have the figure to hand but there is sufficient funding in place to cater for the number of applications that were approved. There is not funding in next year's budget for a new calf welfare scheme. In the budget, I secured an 11% increase in funding for the Department compared to the funding for the outgoing year. That is significant and is targeted at ensuring we can continue all the schemes in place at the high level they are at. There is not specific follow-on funding in place for this.

I take the Deputy's point on the timing of this year's scheme but almost 2,500 farmers applied. That has made a significant benefit, which will be there this year for those farmers too. I will monitor it. It was a successful scheme, which contributed significantly to calf welfare and management on farms.I will continue to monitor its success and the need for any further investment. I thank the Senator for raising the issue.