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Dáil speech by Willie Penrose on the fodder crisis

18 April 2018

Speech by Willie Penrose TD
Spokesperson on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Rural & Community Affairs

Motion on the fodder crisis

Dáil Éireann, April 17th 2018

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate pertaining to the fodder crisis in the Dáil this evening.  I do so on behalf of the Labour Party.  My party leader, Deputy Brendan Howlin, is present as well as Deputy Sean Sherlock.

  We broadly support the motion but with some caveats.  We are fully cognisant of and familiar with the crucial role agriculture plays throughout the economy in terms of employment, quality food production, food processing, exports and the significant role played by farmers in protecting our greatest natural resource, namely, the land, flora and fauna, wildlife and the environment across the country.  It is in that context that the fodder crisis came as a huge dampener and impacted severely not just in terms of animal husbandry and welfare but it has had a significant impact on the health and welfare of individual farmers and families arising from the huge strain generated as farmers watch their barns and silage pits empty to the back walls, without a bale of stray straw or forkful of silage available, which is not just important in terms of keeping the animals from regressing but are vital ingredients in the digestive process of ruminants.

  It is against that background that in early April I called on the Government on behalf of my party for the Government to provide a subsidy for farmers struggling as a result of the current fodder crisis to enable them to purchase alternative feedstuffs or import fodder or roughage for their livestock.  At the agriculture committee last week I publicly supported the introduction of a meal subsidy voucher, as I and my Labour Party colleagues felt that this was the most practical, focused and targeted way of rendering immediate assistance to identified farmers in significant difficulty.  It was the simplest system to administer also.  It need not be widespread, and it could be devoted to many small farmers who have been hardest hit across the country in specific geographical locations.  There are affected pockets right across the country but significant numbers arise in the western corridor, the north west and latterly in the south east.  I spoke to Deputy Howlin's people in Wexford last Friday on the programme.

  If one has 30 suckler cows or 30 to 40 dairy cows a measurable, definitive amount of meal of between 4 kg to 5 kg a day, which would supplement and deal with a deficiency of fodder, over a 30 day period is 150 kg per animal and the cost is clearly identified and measured for 30 to 40 animals.  It would not constitute a runaway train.

  I also believe that the transport subsidy should not be circumscribed by bureaucratic rules and regulations and the subsidy should be available to enable fodder to be sourced from wherever it is procured and delivered to the target farmers who require it.  As I said at the committee also, I do not subscribe or participate in debate pertaining to the lack of fodder in a political way.  It is not the hour or time for political grandstanding or sound bites.  It is naive in the extreme to start apportioning political blame.  All stakeholders must respond.

The Minister and the Government are clearly important but Teagasc, co-operatives, agricultural merchants, financial institutions, major processors and farmers themselves also have a significant role to play.  The farmer is the farm manager.  My brother is in farming.  One has to be down on the farm to understand.  I would not live with him.  He is down there every day and is up at 4 a.m., calving.  These are the people we are talking about.

  Let us stop pontificating for the sake of garnering public notice.  That will not create one extra bag of meal or another bale of straw, silage or hay for hard pressed farmers.  It behoves each of us, as representatives of the people, to adopt constructive policies and to make suggestions to address the significant situation that now prevails across the country.  The problem has clearly been accentuated by the unseasonably cold snap in March and a number of significant adverse weather events including snow, frost, flooding and hurricanes.  All of our citizens have suffered to varying degrees but agriculture took the biggest hit.  The combination of a number of factors has led to the development of a perfect storm.  We have low soil temperatures which means that no grass growth can take place.  We have also had depressed air temperatures.  Land is waterlogged or flooded to such an extent that neither man nor beast can get out on it.  There was a reduction in fodder harvesting last autumn.  Third cuts of silage and hay which were regular features were not achieved in 2017 and in some parts of the country a second cut was not even achieved. 

  A further factor which is not related to weather conditions, about which people do not like to speak, is the abolition of milk quotas.  I spoke about it at the time and sent out a warning at the agriculture committee but nobody wanted to listen.  This has resulted in a significant increase in cow numbers.  There has been a 300,000 increase since 2015 which necessitates a significant increase in forage and concentrates.  Some of the increase in cow numbers arose when long-term tillage farmers took advantage of the quota abolition to get out of what was and continues to be a loss-making operation, particularly grain production.  Those farmers have made the transition to fully fledged dairy farmers through significant capital investment.  As a result, we must now factor into the equation the important loss of that tillage land which produced grain, rapeseed, beet and most importantly, straw.  The loss of that land has resulted in significant losses in terms of feed inputs for animals, the effects of which are now being felt. 

  Let us have a real and honest debate about this and about how we arrived at this situation.  The situation in which we find ourselves can be resolved in the short term but if we do not put in place appropriate plans and preparations, we are at nothing.  Let us be clear - this situation is going to continue in the winters of 2019, 2020, 2021 and beyond and must be addressed from a long-term perspective.  Farmers in the south east are expecting to have their cattle out on grass in early to mid February while those in the midlands expect to have their cattle out by St. Patrick's Day.  Stocking rates are an issue as is sustainability across the sectors.  This must be considered or the ostrich syndrome will win out and we will have learned nothing. 

  We had a similar situation four or five years ago, in 2013.  I recently looked at the study carried out by Dr. Stephen Flood who outlined the significant future impacts of climate change on Irish agriculture.  I believe that study was launched by the former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney.  In planning for a sustainable agriculture industry going forward we will have to ensure that climate projections are factored into any long term plans.  We cannot continue to thatch the roof on the day of the storm.  The inevitable conclusion is that winters of seven rather than five and a half months long should be budgeted for henceforth.  It is hard to achieve that new target when silage pits remain the same size and the land area available for forage decreases.  Significant changes in our climate magnify the risk that we will have winters that are significantly wetter, with significant increases in rainfall.  This will have to be taken into account in the context of fodder saving practices and the frequency of such saving.  Fodder budgeting must be accurate from now on and participation in the Teagasc PastureBase Ireland programme can assist in this regard.  This must be promulgated and advanced.  We know that a mature cow or bullock eats approximately 1 ton of silage per month so instead of 5 tons being the normal requirement, current projections indicate that up to 7 tons per animal would be more appropriate.  We now have more than 7.3 million beef and dairy cattle in the country. 

  We need effective early warning systems to be put in place by Teagasc so that feed reserves and grass on farms are assessed as part of the farm management system in order to prevent the recurrence of this problem, especially on its current scale.  While we clearly have a significant comparative advantage derived from producing milk and beef on a grass based system which is the most efficient way of doing so, we must caution against overdoing it or trying to maximise the achievement of efficiencies of production from grass at the expense of adequate forage conservation for indoor feeding over the winter period.  The two are not compatible.  The impact of not being able to access grazing means the loss of up to €250 per day in terms of profitability.  Every week that this continues will have a severe impact on the bottom line.  Animal fertility can also be affected and there is a clear risk of increased mortality in this situation.

  The advancement of a low-cost credit scheme for farmers would be of enormous help, as would immediate payment of the 4,000 farmers who are still awaiting their GLAS payments and the remaining outstanding 50% due to the other qualifying farmers.  A targeted meal voucher subsidy scheme would also help.  We need to cool the ardour of the farm inspection regime and in particular, the Bord Bia farm audits.  It would not be a national catastrophe if they were deferred for two months or so.  The Minister has made representations to the European Commission which is fully aware of the significant difficulties we have experienced as an island nation in the Atlantic.  The Commission should be willing to give us assistance in achieving our objectives.

  We in the Labour Party would not object to a permanent hardship fund for farmers, provided it incorporated or made available funding for other sectors of our economy which have also suffered as a result of the adverse weather conditions.  As the Labour Party spokesperson on agriculture, fisheries but also on community and rural affairs, it behoves me to advocate for many small shops, businesses and enterprises who also make valuable contributions in terms of economic activity, entrepreneurship, innovation and employment in our economy, particularly the rural economy.  Nobody shouts on their behalf if they experience a difficulty arising from climatic events but they have also suffered.  This evening I am going to change that on behalf of the Labour Party.  If there is a permanent hardship fund for farmers to cover what we hope will be occasional or rare events, the same must be provided to other sectors.  Not doing so would constitute invidious discrimination and would be a kick in the teeth for those hard working people who populate towns and villages across this country.  I want to see them included in any hardship scheme because that is the policy of the Labour Party.