Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Questions (6)

Eugene Murphy


6. Deputy Eugene Murphy asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine the commencement date for the beef environmental economic pilot scheme; if the terms and conditions of the scheme have already been drawn up and issued to suckler cow farmers; if agreement has been reached with the mart co-operatives on the weighing of animals for the scheme; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5443/19]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Agriculture)

I wish to ask the Minister about the commencement of the beef environmental economic pilot scheme. Have the terms and conditions of the scheme already been drawn up and issued to suckler cow farmers? Has agreement been reached with the mart co-ops on the weighing of animals for the scheme and will he make a statement on the matter?

I launched the beef environmental efficiency pilot scheme on 30 January. The launch was covered in the agriculture media. Applications for participation in the pilot scheme will be accepted from Monday, 4 February to 22 February.

The terms and conditions and information on the process and application procedure are available on my Department's website. The procurement process for the field service provider is ongoing. The necessary infrastructure will be in place prior to the opening of the timeframe for the submission of weights on 8 March.

The beef environmental efficiency pilot, BEEP, scheme is a targeted support for suckler cow farmers and specifically aimed at further improving the economic and environmental efficiency of beef production. This is done by measuring the weaning efficiency of suckler cows. Building on the success of the beef data and genomics programme, the data collected will also be a valuable addition to Ireland's already impressive cattle breeding database.

The beef environmental efficiency pilot scheme was announced in budget 2019 as part of the €78 million package for the agrifood industry. As well as clear environmental and climate benefits, the scheme will provide for farm gate investment at a time of market volatility and uncertainty related to Brexit. I am conscious that 2018 was a very difficult year for beef farmers in terms of weather conditions, fodder issues and market volatility. This is the sector most exposed to Brexit, given its reliance on the UK market. The initiative has been designed to provide an injection of investment at a critical time for farmers in navigating the challenges ahead, while delivering in real terms on our climate objectives.

The funding of €20 million available will allow for payment up to a maximum of €40 per calf, based on costs incurred and income forgone. If the scheme is oversubscribed, a linear cut may be applied. It is a pilot scheme for 2019 only, Exchequer funded and operated under state aid de minimis provisions. The pilot scheme has been designed to be as straightforward as possible and ensure the majority of the payment can be retained by the farmer. Application will be open to all beef suckler herdowners. The terms and conditions and information on the process and application procedure are available on my Department's website or the beef schemes section of my Department.

I thank the Minister for his statement and clarification. He knows as well as I do and Deputy McConalogue, the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, and others that beef farmers are under enormous pressure. While I welcome the opening up of the scheme which was something Fianna Fáil pushed for in the confidence and supply agreement, it does not go far enough. The sum of €40 per calf is a start, but it is way down on our bottom line of €200 per calf. In terms of implementation of the scheme, what will the arrangements be for access to the weighing scales? That seems to be an issue for many farmers. Has an arrangement been made and has the position been clarified?

We must consider the reintroduction of the beef suckler cow welfare scheme.

That is a very important issue for beef farmers and it should be looked at again in the context of the difficulties facing that sector currently.

The infrastructure will be in place, including the weighing scales. We will have a nationwide network of scales to be provided by the successful tenderer. That process will commence on 8 March. The ambition, about which I am confident, is that the hiring out of those weighing scales or the use of approved weighing scales by the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, ICBF, if they are owned or available elsewhere, will enable the scheme to deliver the maximum amount of funding to the farmers who apply. We expect that the fee for hiring the scales will be in region of €50 or less. Farmers can pick up the scales, bring them home, run their cattle through the crush and weigh them as they step on the scales, record the data and send them in to the Department. Payment will then issue before the end of the calendar year. We expect to be making payments in December 2019.

I note the Deputy's point about it not being enough but this must be taken in the round, in the context of the improved funding for the ANC scheme over two years. The Deputy will appreciate that funding for that scheme had been reduced but I will not go into the history of that now. I also note the Deputy's continuing support for the concept of €200 per cow but I did not see that in his party's alternative budget.

We must ensure that this is a simple scheme. If farmers are going to be tied up in red tape and facing issues with regard to scales and so forth, that will be a turn off. Given that the figure involved - €40 - is deemed to be very low by the farming community, many farmers will opt out.

Another issue of concern in my area is the fact that the application process is online. Unfortunately, in my part of the country access to broadband is very poor. Roscommon is one of the worst counties in terms of broadband access and we need to see the urgent roll-out of the national broadband plan. Has the Department put something in place to ensure that all farmers, including those who do not have broadband access, will be able to get details of the scheme, including the closing date for applications? It is crucial that we address those issues.

What are the Minister's plans for the scheme if it is over-subscribed?

On the last point, if the scheme is over-subscribed it will require a linear cut. We expect the participation rate to be similar to that for the BDGP which, at 500,000, would allow for the payment as envisaged under the scheme. If it is over-subscribed, it will require a linear cut across the board.

On the issue of simplicity, the scheme is very user-friendly. All that farmers need to do to apply is send their name, address and herd number to the Department. That can be done online or by paper application. That deals with the issue of online access. I would point out that with a lot of co-operation and effort on the part of individual farmers and farming organisations and a lot of work by my Department, last year we achieved 100% online applications for the basic payment scheme. Farmers are seeing the benefits of applying online. In the context of this scheme, there is a paper option for applying to the scheme and for submitting the data. It can also be done online or by way of an app.

Question No. 7 replied to with Written Answers.