Battling through the paperwork mountain
Published 20/05/2015 | 02:30
The mountain of Department paperwork which we have been tackling over the past few weeks has been surmountable but stressful - except for the new beef data and genomics programme. This has landed on us in a rush, and, the more we learn about it, the less attractive it looks.
First up was the single farm payment application or, as will now have to learn to say, the Basic Payment Scheme. Robin has always done this himself. But now that I am a joint herd owner I could no longer claim that it is technically nothing to do with me so we got stuck in one morning last week.
We did it online and, though I am well used to computers, it was nonetheless quite daunting. It's all new and unfamiliar and, given that it is the single most important thing we do in our farming business in the turn of the year, I was in dread of hitting a button that would ruin our application.
This year, it was particularly scary because of the new elements - Greening and Ecological Focus Areas. However, these were flagged well in advance and Robin had done his homework so it was something we were able to navigate readily enough.
Robin is going to be mortified that I reveal this, but we even pressed the 'submit' button together! We expected this would be the last time we would think about it until October.
So you can imagine our surprise when, a few days later, an envelope dropped through the post with a guide to land eligibility regarding the direct payment schemes, including the BPS.
What curious timing. We had been happy enough that everything was OK when we submitted our application but this has now has planted a seed of doubt in our minds. So we will have to read it to re-check.
Some time back, we began to consider joining GLAS. We strive to farm in an environmentally friendly way and this is one of the first agri-environment schemes in which you can select measures to match your farm and farming system.
We set the process in train through our Teagasc adviser, but a few weeks back we got a letter saying we were among their 2,000 clients that were unlikely to get in under the current tranche of applications.
So we were delighted then to get a phone call from Clara McGriskin from Leitrim who is working with the Farm Relief Service, Teagasc's partner in GLAS, to say she would be on. She breezed in the following evening around 7.45pm and, though we were her 14th call of the day, she was sharp, focussed and had the bones of our plan sketched out in the blink of an eye.
Having participated in the pilot version last year, we were initially pleased to hear of the return of the beef genomics programme - especially as the rate of payment is attractive.
However, of the various issues which are being raised by farmers, the two key ones as far as we are concerned are its unproven scientific basis and the mandatory six-year contract. The latter could prove a deal breaker for us.
Robin is always working towards improving the genetics of our suckler herd and also firmly supports the view that we should "follow the science" but, as far as I know, the science behind this scheme is only in its embryonic stages.
For example, one element is that a percentage of replacement females have to be 4 or 5 stars on the replacement index. A recent Teagasc study aimed at validating this index was unable to find differences between high and low genetic merit replacement animals.
As for the length of contract, apparently this is necessary, on a number of grounds.
Responding in the Dáil to criticism of the programme last week, Minister Simon Coveney pointed out that it will be in the second half of the scheme that we will see the genetic improvements that come from the data collected in the first half.
A day earlier, new secretary general of the Department of Agriculture Aidan O'Driscoll explained that, though this is not what they would ideally have wished, the programme is coming in under the EU's agri-environment umbrella and such programmes normally extend over several years.
But this is not the same as other agri-environment programmes/schemes. As we have shown in relation to GLAS we have no problem in signing up to an agri-environment scheme with a range of land management requirements but it's a different story to be totally tied into a particular production system. For example, if we sign up, we have to continue to keep suckler cows, at around the same level as 2014. This is not an element of how we do business, it is our entire business.
While force majeure is obviously catered for, if we withdraw at any time during the six years, any payments we have got will have to be repaid.
What happens in the beef trade collapses and does not recover? A lot of dairy cows are being calved down at present. Very few of these bull calves are being exported and they will start to come on stream in two years' time.
No matter how bad things get, it wouldn't be unmanageable if you could escape within a year.
Dare I say the beef processing industry will be rubbing their hands in glee at the guaranteed levels of supplies coming their way over the next number of years if farmers take up the programme as it currently stands.
And how ironic is it that beef farmers are being offered shackles, albeit padded ones, only a few short weeks after they have been totally removed from the dairy sector.
If the science is good, farmers will stick with it, they don't need to be tied.
Perhaps it's not too late for some renegotiation of these critical issues.
* Laois IFA is holding a farm safety event on our farm in Ballacolla next Saturday (11am). The event aims to refresh awareness around key hazards including machinery, work practices and improper personal safety equipment. There will be demonstrations by the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) and Farm Relief Service (FRS), with speakers from Teagasc and IFA. All are welcome.