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Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine debate -
Tuesday, 8 Dec 2015

Beef Data and Genomics Programme: Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine

In the final part of the meeting, we will receive the update we requested on the beef data and genomics programme. I welcome the witnesses from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine: Mr. Brendan Gleeson, who is an Assistant Secretary General; Mr. Colm Hayes, who is a principal officer; Mr. Frank Macken, who is an agricultural inspector; Mr. Peter Johnston, who is a higher executive officer; and Ms Carmel Delahunt, who is an assistant principal. I thank them for attending this meeting to brief the committee on the beef data and genomics programme.

Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members have already been reminded of their responsibilities in this regard. I invite Mr. Gleeson to make his opening statement.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I am accompanied by officials from the operational side who are in charge of payments. If there are questions about progress with payments, I might defer to my colleagues. I thank the committee for giving me an opportunity to update it on the progress that is being made with the beef data and genomics programme, or BDGP. As Deputies will be aware, the BDGP was launched by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on 5 May 2015. The BDGP forms part of Ireland's current rural development programme, which runs from 2014 to 2020. This programme, which is known as the RDP, has funding of €300 million over its lifespan.

The BDGP builds on previous investment in suckler farming through schemes such as the nationally funded beef data programme and the beef genomics scheme. Suckler farming is the only sector in the RDP with its own targeted RDP scheme. The principal objective of the BDGP scheme is to encourage the introduction of animals of a higher genetic merit into the national beef herd. This will reduce the greenhouse gas intensity of beef production in Ireland by improving production efficiency on suckler farms. We know there is a particular spotlight on the role the agriculture sector plays in national emissions. The Minister has made it clear that the agriculture sector is not looking for a free ride on the backs of the efforts of other sectors, but must be willing to adapt and innovate in response to environmental imperatives. The BDGP is exactly the kind of innovative and meaningful response the sector requires if Irish agriculture is to lay claim to being among the most sustainable in the world.

The BDGP is an important vehicle for improving production efficiency and profitability on suckler farms. Of course there are many factors affecting profitability, including global demand and supply, exchange rates and input costs. Neither farmers nor the State can have any significant control over these factors. However, there has been significant Exchequer investment through the provision of research, advice and education by Teagasc, the provision of funding for knowledge transfer to farmers and the provision of funding for the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, which can help to increase profitability and output and reduce input costs at farm level. Research, innovation, technology adoption and education will have a critically important role to play in improving the lot of suckler farmers. The focus has to be strategic. Poor profitability in the beef sector is not a new phenomenon and will not be resolved by short-term measures. Improving the genetics of the beef herd will have a long-term and cumulative impact.

In designing the BDGP, the Department took the best available scientific advice on the steps needed to improve the genetics of the beef sector. Fertility is key. On average, Irish beef farmers produce just eight calves for every ten cows at present. Farmers are keeping non-productive animals on their farms - they are feeding them, housing them, vaccinating and bearing all of the costs associated with them - even though such animals are not contributing to the profits of farms at all. When the calving interval of over 400 days, which is increasing, is considered, it is clear that something needs to be done. The best advice from experts in Teagasc and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation is that the predominant focus on terminal traits needs to be adjusted so that a more rounded multi-trait breeding strategy can be pursued.

Representatives from the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, came before the committee recently and explained the possible improvements in genetics. Improving the genetic profile of the suckler herd should result in more calves per cow per year, better cow survival rates, more mother's milk for calves before weaning, reduced calving intervals and reduced age at first calving. These are all critical success factors for suckler farming. The key focus is to look at profitability over the lifetime of the suckler cow and the beef data genomics programme, BDGP, is designed with these objectives in mind.

I set out the requirements of the scheme in June, and I will not go into the same detail as before, but just to recap, farmers will be required to record calving data on the animal events sheet. This is in addition to normal tagging and registration requirements, and it can be completed online or through the animal events book provided by the ICBF. They must also complete surveys on important traits in the maternal index, such as milking ability and docility. This is vital information for the database behind the breeding indexes that are developed by the ICBF and will strengthen the robustness of the breeding advice provided to farmers. Farmers must also carry out genotyping on selected animals within their herds. This involves tagging an animal and returning the genomic sample. They must ensure a percentage of the female animals on their farms are of the highest quality, four or five-star, with regard to the replacement or maternal index. They must also ensure there is a four or five-star stock bull on either the terminal or replacement index. This requirement is phased in over time. They must also complete a carbon navigator with an approved adviser and attend a training course on all aspects of the BDGP in 2016. The Department along with the ICBF and other relevant agencies will provide long-term support for participants on the scheme and advice on the requirements in the programme. Farmers should not hesitate to get in contact if they have any queries.

With regard to progress on the scheme, the Department has received 29,780 applications, having extended the closing date by an additional week to 5 June. Approval letters were issued to scheme participants in August, at the same time as a detailed ICBF report on their herd profile. As of Friday last, approximately 2,900 herds have withdrawn from the scheme, though some of these have subsequently asked to re-enter. Withdrawals from a scheme such as this are, of course, not unusual, particularly when one considers the simple application procedure and the high volume of applicants. There are eligibility issues with a further approximately 500 applicants, which are being worked through at present. The withdrawal rate is broadly in line with previous suckler herd schemes, including the suckler cow welfare scheme and the beef genomic scheme.

At this stage, the 26,321 herds which are fully eligible for the scheme are working hard to meet the implementation requirements. Almost all of the tags required for genomic sampling have been sent to herd owners and, to date, 275,800 tags have been returned. This accounts for 83% percent of herd owners in the scheme. A total of 17,613 applicants have submitted survey forms by post, and a further 5,672 applicants have completed their surveys online. Therefore, an overall total of 23,285 participants have submitted some or all of their survey data. To be eligible for a payment in 2015, applicants must have submitted at least 60% of the required survey data and completed 90% of the required genomic sampling. As of last Friday, more than 16,000 applicants met this basic test for payment in 2015. Payments will simply roll into 2016 as farmers meet their compliance obligations. There is no question of people who are paid in December having to wait until the end of next year to be paid. The payments will roll on through January and there will be regular payment runs as additional data comes in. This is an important point.

The educational component of the scheme is a critical element. Building awareness among applicants of the importance of the correct genetics and providing them with a roadmap on how to achieve the best results will be key. A request for tenders for the training element of the scheme has closed, and while the successful tenderer has been notified we are now in the statutory cooling-off period of 14 days before the tender can be awarded. This training will not cost the farmer anything, and he or she will receive €166 for completing the course. This is in addition to the normal per hectare payments under the scheme. Farmers will also need advice on the completion of the carbon navigator. A list of advisers that applicants will be able to call upon to assist in completion of their carbon navigator requirement will be sent to herd owners in the new year. This will also be free of charge to the farmer.

The Department proposes to commence payments in December, with further payment runs following on at regular intervals in 2016 as applicants reach the compliance requirements after the first payment run has been completed. Farmers who have completed their full genotyping requirements and submitted their survey data on animals born up to the 30 June this year will be paid in December, following successful completion of the area-based crosscheck with their basic payment scheme application and completion of the required regulatory inspections as appropriate. The payment is calculated at €142.50 for the first 6.66 ha and €120 for each hectare thereafter, up to a maximum payable hectarage. In essence, this approximates to €95 for the first ten calved cows and €80 for each additional calved cow. I explained previously that when we went to the Commission with the scheme we had the very simple idea of paying for actions, but the only available article under the rural development regulation for a payment of this nature was Article 28, which is the environmental article, and payments under this must be on an area basis. We were then required to come up with a coefficient for translating what we had intended to be an action-based payment to a hectare-based payment. This is how the €95 and €80 payments were reached.

The maximum payable hectarage is calculated by dividing the number of calved cows in the herd in 2014, the reference amount, by a standard stocking rate of 1.5 calved cows per hectare. On the basis of this stocking rate, the vast majority of farmers have far more land than they require to obtain the maximum payment under the scheme. Almost half of farmers have a stocking rate of 0.5 or less and 90% have a stocking rate of less than one. For example, an average farmer with ten cows and a stocking rate of 0.5 will have 20 ha but he or she will require less than seven of these for full payment under the scheme. Farmers were concerned that their land would be tied up for six years under the scheme but for the vast majority of farmers to attract the full payment they will need only a very small proportion of their land and they can do what they like with the rest. They can sell it or lease it if they wish.

When we last came before the committee we spoke about communications, and members correctly said it is a very important part of the scheme. This is complicated and farmers need to be managed carefully and we need to bring them into the mindset. The Department, with the ICBF and Teagasc, has concluded a nationwide series of 12 information meetings for participants in the scheme. These meetings were all extremely well attended. The feedback was positive and, importantly, farmers had the opportunity to discuss their own herd on a one to one basis with the ICBF and the Department. At the ploughing championships we met farmers who were quite concerned about their ability to comply with the scheme, but they went away quite reassured when we dealt with them on a one to one basis and examined the profile of their herd. This type of communication has taken place and it will continue. Such close engagement with farmers will be critical as the scheme progresses. The Department has also published on its website an extended frequently asked questions document using the questions raised at the various information meetings. The ICBF has been in direct contact with farmers, as has Teagasc which has run several farm walks on the scheme and will do so again next year. The ICBF has a series of information articles in The Farmer's Journal every week. There is much information and communication.

The Minister committed to establishing a monitoring group of relevant stakeholders and this group held its first meeting on Friday, 27 November. Attendees included farming organisations, the ICBF, Teagasc and the Department. The group will continue to review the operation of the scheme and the intention is to reconvene in early 2016. The work of this monitoring group can feed into the planned mid-term review of the BDGP. The idea is to see how the scheme operates - it is up and running - and whether any operational anomalies or difficulties arise. We will try to adjust the scheme as necessary, to the extent it is possible to do so. We must bear in mind this scheme has been approved by the Commission and we are anxious to keep it moving. Commission approval involved not only engagement with DG Agriculture and Rural Development but also DG Environment and DG Climate Action. It was complicated to get it through.

The BDGP is established and has a strong cohort of participants. The first payments under the scheme will issue this month. Payment runs will continue into January as participants comply with the scheme. The Department, along with the ICBF and Teagasc, is committed to continuous engagement with the scheme participants for the duration of the programme, which is very important, to assist them in maximising their gain under the scheme. I am happy to discuss any issues that arise.

I thank Mr. Gleeson for his presentation and the officials for attending. They have had to wait around and it is a pity something so important has been left to the end of the meeting.

I commend the departmental officials on what is a very innovative scheme. It obviously took a lot of engineering to get something like this through. It fills me with pride to think that Ireland does not just go with the flow. We come up with our own schemes and plans. I know there is as much of an environmental element as an agricultural one to this scheme.

I think the overall target figure at the start was 30,000 participants. It was said in the witnesses' presentation that there are a couple of thousand who have dropped out and we are just short of the 30,000. How will it work out in the coming years when we have new entrants into farming? I know commitments could not be given on that in the past. Would the witnesses be confident that a young farmer who starts in the coming years and might be inheriting a farm that is not in the beef data scheme will have some access to the scheme? That would be really important if it is possible. Do they see the 30,000 figure changing much in the coming years?

I thank the witnesses for that good report. After the early difficulties we all envisaged when the scheme was first announced, more information is now coming out and farmers are beginning to feel happier with it. The officials say about 23,000 farmers are now nearly ready for payments. Do they expect that most of them will be paid before Christmas at this stage?

The monitoring group review is still in place. There was talk and the Minister said he might reduce the four and five star requirement down to three or four stars. Maybe that is not necessary at this stage, but some people out there are asking the question.

That a number of farmers have withdrawn from the scheme leaves the officials with two options: to include more young farmers as we go forward, as Deputy Heydon has said, or to increase the payment for the farmers who are already there. Maybe the drop-out rate is not high enough to increase the payment significantly. It would be very important to allow young farmers to get into the scheme as we move forward in 2016 and 2017.

This is progress in the context of what we discussed previously with Mr. O'Driscoll and in respect of the fact that climate change is included. All this comes into the one focus and area. If a mistake was made, as I think we said the last time we spoke to Mr. Gleeson, it was that communications were behind rather than in front. That did happen but it has been addressed and I think those who are reconsidering are probably doing so because of that.

There were many discussion groups - I was part of one - in respect of knowledge transfer, and there are two main concerns. One is that people cannot participate in two groups such as, say, a sheep group and a beef group. That is not to say they should get paid in both but they should at least be allowed to participate because many of them are dual dry stock farmers. The other is that the named applicant cannot designate a nominee.

Following on from what Senator Comiskey said and what was said on climate change, we may only end up with about 27,000 fully compliant although the aim was much higher. There are ongoing negotiations as this is a climate change initiative. If there are new entrants or people who have made mistakes in their basic payment scheme, like in the example earlier, they should be entitled to join.

We heard from the Estimates meeting in the first part of today's session that rural environment protection scheme, REPS, payments have only just finished. There has been another programme since but we are still paying. Why can we not pay beef data into the next programme if they commit to a six-year programme? It is going to be unspent money that can be carried over. The mechanisms are there to provide for that.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I thank the Deputies. On the 30,000 participants, the experience with previous schemes has been that we have had about that many participants. Under this scheme, had we had more participants than we could afford, we would have had to apply selection criteria and exclude people from the scheme. There will be payments this year. I understand the Minister, when he was before the committee, mentioned €35 million. Payments will roll over into next year. My best assessment of the payments next year is that they will be at least €48 million and maybe a little bit more.

Members have asked me about new farmers. In a way, that is a policy question and I cannot answer it. However, my best assessment for next year is that the €52 million will be fully spent. We also have training components next year that have to be paid from this fund. This engagement with farmers, which will be free of charge to them, is very important.

The Chairman is right that payments under this scheme could run into the next programming period with n+2 - I think it is n+3 now. I can say that it is technically possible to bring people into the scheme up to the middle of 2017 and pay six years, some of which would come from the EU programmes. That is a technical possibility but the decision on whether to do it will depend on the budget available and the Minister, whoever is in place at the time.

On the question of increasing payments, this is a rural development scheme and is not intended to be a direct payment or income support scheme. Rural development schemes are built up on the basis of costs incurred or income forgone. When we came up with these payments, we had to impute very carefully the costs of genotyping, taking samples, going to courses and the various components. We then had to impute an overhead associated with that. It was those individual elements of the payment that justified it to the Commission. That was critical. We could not just arbitrarily increase the payment if more funding was available. We would have to find additional actions to justify an increase, go back to the Commission and negotiate something different. That would be a tall order.

On the question of moving down to three or four stars, we agonised long and hard over it. I will come back to the objective of the scheme. From a domestic point of view there is significant interest in increasing profitability on beef farms. If we are to do that, we want to be ambitious about our aim. Perhaps more important than that, we had to get this through DG Environment and DG Climate Action. We had our environmental experts pore over the scheme and work out the positive carbon impact of moving up to four or five stars. We cannot just arbitrarily move the goalposts now. To do so would require us not only to go back to DG Agriculture and Rural Development but also go back to DG Environment and DG Climate Action as well. I have said this before and want to be careful of what I say. This was a leap for these guys. The beef sector in any country and in Ireland especially has a particular environmental image. Getting to grips with the idea that a subvention to the beef sector could also be an environmental measure was a big leap for DG Environment and particularly for DG Climate Action. We would have to go back and explain we wanted to move the goalposts and make it easier for people to comply. I cannot stress enough how difficult that would be. We would be opening a can of worms which we succeeded in closing a year ago. That is the reality.

I will ask Mr. Macken to address the knowledge transfer issues.

Mr. Frank Macken

The Chair asked a couple of questions about knowledge transfer. That is also under the rural development programme. The issue of participants engaging in two knowledge transfer groups at the same time is being considered as part of our initial amendment to the rural development programme. The intention is that, as part of an amendment, we would request that the Commission allow us to allow participants to be in a beef and a sheep programme at the same time, for example. There will be issues associated with double funding and they will not receive full payment.

I do not think they were looking for it.

Mr. Frank Macken

The second issue is making provision for replacements in the event that the first farmer is not able to attend.

That has also been addressed. That is more of a national policy issue and the flexibility is there now for a designated alternative to attend meetings.

If the beef data genomics programme was proposed after the current climate change summit in Paris, especially when people's minds are focused on the issue, it would be much easier to introduce it. In the public mind, the bovine sector is seen as the largest contributor in agriculture to greenhouse gas emissions. Given that beef production accounts for half or more of that output, this scheme provides defensive ammunition going into the climate change debate, as well as the fact we actually took a first step in it. It is based on measures, actions and costs. Ultimately, the cost reflects a more efficient and better behind-the-farmgate production system which should lead to profitability and should be rewarded. It is a great scheme.

The only mistake made was that the roadshow did not happen recently. Some of the farmers mentioned in the opening statements who are trying to re-join the scheme have seen how good it is and it is regrettable that this happened. It would be preferable if some flexibility were shown to allow people back into the scheme and get the funding up to the €52 million.

Mr. Brendan Gleeson

I agree with the Chairman's assessment about the lessons to be learned from this. It would have been helpful if the Department had been out earlier promoting the scheme. It was important we engaged with participants because there was much misinformation going around about the scheme. Sometimes, these communications are not best done in the heat of a mass meeting. We could have obviated that by being out ourselves before we allowed that to happen. I accept that critique and it is perfectly reasonable.

Apart from the climate change aspect to the scheme, there is one other element. I do not wish to overemphasise it but we have positioned ourselves as a food producing nation in a particular space in terms of quality, environment and so forth. Apart from assisting us in terms of the climate change debate, this is a useful tool in the context of the market. Large multiple retailers have corporate social responsibility strategies and they all want to get their produce from sustainable sources. This programme is a world first in that regard. It is part of the Origin Green message that Aidan Cotter, chief executive of Bord Bia, has told the committee about before. It is multifunctional in a way. It is a pity that, in the context of the rural development programme regulations, it became a victim of its own versatility. It ticked so many boxes in the rural development regulations but it was difficult to find a specific niche in an article for it. That is where the difficulty was.

In the long run, it found the right niche, although it might have taken a while. This programme will probably be the surprise package because it can do so much for efficiency. If the 400-day calving interval could be brought down to 380 days, it would make a large difference to profitability, carbon emissions, feed costs and so forth. Recently, I spoke to a man who had no e-mail or online access and had to attend his Teagasc adviser. He was shown he had one five-star cow that he did not know he had. He is now convinced about the programme, even though he is still looking for someone to fill it in for him.

I thank the delegation for the presentation and the committee members who contributed to this meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 15 December 2015.