Meal Voucher Scheme needs to be introduced – Brendan Smith T.D.

For months I have highlighted through Parliamentary Questions and in Topical Issue Debates in Dáil Éireann the need for the Agriculture Minister to introduce a meaningful fodder aid scheme including transport subsidy and meal voucher scheme.

Housed dairy cows on silage. Photo O'Gorman Photography.

Below extracts from recent Dáil Debate (Thursday, 29th March 2018)

Brendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail) Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this very important subject for discussion. The Minister may remember that the last time I and others here had this subject up for discussion as a Topical Issue, I instanced the huge length of time people had to have cattle indoors. Some dairy farmers in my constituency, Cavan-Monaghan, had cattle, particularly cows, in from the end of July. The long winter of rainfall and, in more recent times, severe storms has contributed enormously to the problems on farms. There was a fodder shortage even before the bad winter. Today I spoke to farmers whom I would regard as very progressive in both Monaghan and Cavan. They instanced to me that there was a heavy frost once again last night, growth is at least three to four weeks behind normal, there is no fodder, farmers face a severe income crisis and they are very concerned.

Again, Deputy McConalogue mentioned, as I did on the previous occasion, the need to introduce a meal voucher scheme. That was the one way to ensure one would get the full benefit of the taxpayer’s assistance to the individual farmer. I appeal to the Minister again to give that direct assistance to farmers. Many of them are out of fodder, there is no growth, there is no grass, the weather is cold and miserable and they face a real financial crisis. We must remember that from late July and into August, some people have cattle housed. What a length of time to face these difficulties. Along with the income crisis, they face the fact that there is no fodder available. The only way of providing practical assistance is through a dedicated meal voucher scheme. The farmers to whom I spoke do not want handouts, but at this time they need assistance to remain viable.

In my own county, Councillors John Paul Feeley and Seán Smith tabled a motion on this at the recent council meeting. They told me that following some media coverage they got a huge number of calls from farmers concerned. Similarly, in County Monaghan, my colleague, Councillor Séamus Coyle, raised this issue at a meeting of the Ballybay-Clones Municipal District.

Again, he received a huge number of calls from concerned farmers about the difficulties they face.

Michael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael) Link to this: Individually | In context

I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. As I have said on many previous occasions, the wet weather conditions that prevailed throughout much of last autumn and into early winter were difficult for many farmers, particularly in parts of the west and north west. However, the more recent turbulent and prolonged cold spell has created additional difficulties for farmers in all parts of the country.

To address the problems posed by an unseasonably wet autumn, I prioritised the payment of farm supports to assist farmers with cash flow. The European Commission agreed to my request, informed in part by the poor weather conditions of last autumn, for an advance payment of the 2017 basic payment measure and agri-environment measures. These payments commenced at the earliest date possible, which was 15 October 2017, and balancing payments issued in early December 2017. These payments, together with those issued under the areas of natural constraints measure, injected more than €1.4 billion into the Irish rural economy by the end of last year and provided a very welcome boost for Irish farm families, helping to finance additional fodder purchase where necessary.

At the time, I also asked Teagasc to support farmers at risk of a fodder shortage through the provision of fodder budgeting. To provide additional assistance to those livestock farmers severely affected by ongoing fodder shortages, mainly in parts of the west and north west, I introduced a targeted fodder transport support measure, operated primarily through the co-operative structure, to partly offset the cost of transporting fodder between those areas where it is available and those where it is scarce. This measure applies only to fodder purchased in the period from 29 January 2018 to 20 April 2018. To date, only a small number of applications – 15 in total – have been received, but this is not unexpected given that farmers are holding off submitting the completed application forms until they have sourced their full fodder requirements. The scheme has provided an important back-stop to farmers to ensure they have access to fodder at affordable prices.

As I indicated earlier, the continued cold weather has significantly affected grass growth in all parts of the country and caused delay to expected turn out of livestock, with knock-on effects on demand for fodder in all areas. While grass growth is poor, grazing conditions have improved sufficiently to allow some grazing by day where ground conditions permit. Nonetheless, there is concern that with the current low temperatures grass regrowth may be delayed. While stocks of fodder remain available in the country, I am conscious that most farmers are very proactive in managing their feed supplies through meal supplementation and so on. It is critical that farmers who have identified a problem engage immediately with their adviser-feed provider to work through this difficult period.

My officials continue to engage with Teagasc and the industry to ensure their ongoing efforts to support farmers through this current period are co-ordinated and targeted for maximum effect. The key focus of these supports must remain on fodder budgeting, optimising use of concentrates, nutritional advice and, most importantly, grassland management. I will closely monitor the outcome of this ongoing engagement. As we finally come towards the end of a difficult and prolonged winter, it is timely to look forward and put the experience gained to good use. The basic requirement for viability, whether it be on an expanding dairy farm or on a dry stock farm in a more difficult area, is the capacity to conserve adequate winter feed for the livestock numbers on the farm, even for such a prolonged and difficult winter as this has been. To facilitate this, I will ask Teagasc to provide particular guidance on fodder conservation during its ongoing advisory campaign.

I wish to refer to the points made by Deputy Scanlan in respect of the call to my office yesterday. I am not familiar with the details so perhaps the Deputy can pass them on to me. I assure the Deputy and any farmer who finds himself in similar circumstances that I appreciate the mental pressure and the ongoing daily farm management pressures associated with this difficulty. My Department has a capacity to step in and assist individual farmers where there is no fodder and animals require attention. If the Deputy wishes to bring that case to my personal attention, I will ensure that the Department responds appropriately.

I am not out of touch on this issue. I am in the farming community regularly and, in fact, in the past week I have been to two marts in my constituency. I am engaged and I appreciate the issues involved. We are actively managing this issue. We are coming to the end of a very difficult period and I hope that, collectively, we can learn the lessons from this and ensure that adequate fodder conservation is at the heart of the advisory services my Department will deliver to farmers as we face into the spring and early summer of 2018.

Brendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail) Link to this: Individually | In context

I refer to the phrase “grassland management” in the Minister’s reply. Unfortunately, from the two counties I represent there will not be a problem in managing grass for some time this year; it is cold and miserable and there is no growth. It is a delayed season. The Minister also spoke of the capacity to conserve adequate winter feed for the livestock numbers on the farm. The problems are compounded by the long winter and the fact that a lot of farmers in my type of terrain, and maybe in the Minister’s own part of Cork, did not get their second cut of silage.

During the last Topical Issue debate on this matter, I instanced the last days of October, when I happened to be travelling throughout much of counties Cavan, Monaghan and Fermanagh. People were cutting silage during those days but were bringing in as much clay as grass. The value of what they gathered up probably did not pay for the price of the diesel. It was so-called fodder. Many farmers had hoped the weather would improve in August or even early September in order that they could get a second cut of silage, but they did not get it. They housed their cattle from July and could neither get that second cut of silage nor make their hay late. This has all compounded the problem, as have the very long winter, the rainfall, the severe storms and the current cold weather. There is no prospect of an early growth of grass. I appeal to the Minister to give urgent consideration to the request that we have genuinely made on behalf of the farming communities in the areas we represent. Assistance must be given directly to farmers as soon as possible.

Michael Creed (Cork North West, Fine Gael) Link to this: Individually | In context

I do not doubt the sincerity of any of the individuals opposite and have listened with interest to their points. I assure them that the departmental officials and I are actively monitoring this issue on a daily basis. In addition to my own activities in respect of this matter, being in the community, meeting farmers in my constituency and elsewhere, I have taken the opportunity to engage with the agribusiness interests in many parts of the country to find out about the situation in their respective areas. I am reassured by the willingness of those businesses to partner with the agricultural community at this difficult time and to assist with fodder provision and credit lines. That is a strength and hallmark of the co-operative movement.

The message should go out from here that it is alright for farmers to put their hands up now and say they are having specific individual difficulty. From the engagement I have had, particularly with the co-operative movement, I am quite satisfied that there will be a meaningful response from the co-ops to help them.

In the context of the specific case mentioned by Deputy Scanlon, and for anybody else in a similar situation, the Department has the capacity to respond to individual cases on welfare grounds to help farmers who are looking at the back of a silage pit wall, who have no other options and who have cattle bellowing in their sheds. That is a very traumatic and challenging situation. The Department can and will respond, as it has done in the past, in respect of those who find themselves in such circumstances.

I cannot predict the weather. We are tracking daily grass growth on PastureBase. It is significantly below- by a factor of over two – the level that obtained at this time last year. Soil temperatures are also below where they need to be but are beginning to recover. It will take time. We are also getting a handle on fodder levels throughout the country. We are satisfied that there is still a mismatch between where it is located and where it is needed, but substantially adequate quantities of fodder are available. That is why I say to individual farmers to approach co-ops and agribusinesses where they will find a willing ear. The Department is tracking this daily. I am constantly engaging with the officials on the matter. I will take the details of the case mentioned by Deputy Scanlon and follow up on it.