Scheme needs flexibility to reflect suckler farming reality

The recent introduction of a Beef Data and Genomics scheme as part of our wider rural development programme has been heralded as an essential support to the under-pressure suckler sector.

Minister Coveney described it as a “major shot in the arm for the suckler sector” and alluded to the environmental benefits of a more carbon-efficient suckler herd, along with the obvious focus on genetic gain.

ICSA supports the objective of helping suckler farmers by encouraging better farming practices and understands the need to target the most committed suckler farmers. However, there are issues with the finer details of this scheme.

Farmers are required to contribute the necessary data and DNA samples to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, which uses this information to develop computer-generated analysis of which animals are likely to have the most profitable traits.

The more quality information you put in to the model, the greater the likelihood of accurate information leading to greater and quicker genetic gain. Quick is important because breeding is a slow process; the breeding decisions of today only begin to impact a herd in three years’ time.

However, because the scheme is part-funded by the EU under Pillar 2 of the CAP, it required EU sanction. This has not been a straightforward process, due to the EU Commission’s preoccupation with climate-change objectives.

The department had to demonstrate that this scheme was not about more suckler cows but more productivity from existing cows. Moreover, it seems that any gains were to be copper-fastened by limiting the scheme to farmers with a long-term commitment to sucklers.

Hence the requirement for each farmer to complete a carbon navigator, with the help of a consultant (funded under the scheme), to assess the current carbon footprint and set out targets to increase carbon efficiency, such as extended grazing.

While farmers may be dubious about this element, it is likely to have far less impact than the rule requiring participants to remain in the scheme for the full six-year contract. If, for any reason, you pull out of the scheme, all monies already earned under the scheme are refundable.

Imagine if you got a new job, signed a six-year contract and, having done all that was asked of you for four years, decided to change direction. Would you accept having to return all earnings for the previous four years? This is precisely what is being asked of farmers and is one reason why there is so much concern about the scheme.

While most farmers entering the scheme will be intent on completing the required term, only the hopelessly optimistic could be certain of where they will be in six years’ time.

Is it really acceptable that there is absolutely no provision for scheme participants to change direction? We all know that suckling is a precariously marginal enterprise where many farmers are desperately trying to find a way of not losing money.

They will want to enter the scheme to improve viability but no-one can predict the future, especially when we are so dependent on the whims of processors and retailers, not to mention currency movements and the future of the UK in the EU.

Surely they must have the right to exit suckling if viability worsens in four years? A further concern is the perceived inflexibility of the targets set out for improving breeding, mainly due to the fact that the science and methodology underpinning four and five-star bulls remains an evolving process.

Farmers can be wrong-footed even if they follow the best advice, and they complain reasonably that you should not be penalised for something outside of your control.

Bull ratings can change dramatically over a year. One bull, widely pushed by AI groups, fell from a four-star rating in December 2014 to a one-star in April 2015. How can farmers be expected to deliver 50% four-star replacement heifers by 2020 when the AI stations and ICBF are dealing with such volatility in carefully selected bulls?

Moreover, the cost of a four-star or five-star bull is beyond the means of many smaller farmers, and while AI may suffice, it’s not an ideal solution for the part-timer.

Let’s be honest. Farmers can do a lot to improve the genetic potential of their suckler herds and there is no doubt that a scheme that pushes them to catch up with the dairy sector in genetic progress is a good idea.

But let’s also be honest about the fact that breeding objectives in suckling (milk or beef; hard calving or weanling export) are more complex than in singularly-focused dairying. The State must also acknowledge that, for all the progress made by ICBF, their models are still at a developmental stage.

The scheme needs to be flexible enough to recognise these realities and if we want farmers to embrace change, we cannot have threats of unfair penalties hanging over them. Now where have I heard that one before?


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