Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 6 December 2016

Too much data and not enough answers

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 24/06/2015 | 02:30

Pupils from St. Patrick’s and Monaseed National Schools, Craanford, Gorey visited local dairy farmer John Murphy to see a working farm in operation. The Murphy farm supplies milk to Glanbia Ingredients Ireland (GII) and the children obtained hands on experience of how the farm works, where milk comes from and the importance of healthy eating and daily exercise. Included in the picture are farmer John Murphy, with Little Jed and pupils from the school including his own daughter Alia (green top) who wa celebrating her sixth birthday. Photo: Pat Moore.
Pupils from St. Patrick’s and Monaseed National Schools, Craanford, Gorey visited local dairy farmer John Murphy to see a working farm in operation. The Murphy farm supplies milk to Glanbia Ingredients Ireland (GII) and the children obtained hands on experience of how the farm works, where milk comes from and the importance of healthy eating and daily exercise. Included in the picture are farmer John Murphy, with Little Jed and pupils from the school including his own daughter Alia (green top) who wa celebrating her sixth birthday. Photo: Pat Moore.

IT'S been a breakfast table topic for a few weeks now. But the news that the Beef Data and Genomic Programme (BDGP) has reached its target 560,000 cows, with almost 29,000 applicants, has once again got me on to the topic.

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I have written about the programme in the past and, in our house, the view is that, while its objectives - solve Ireland's climate change commitments and commercialise the Irish suckler herd at the same time - are admirable, the six-year-commitment is highly onerous.

There have been various complaints about lots of the other conditions but they are unlikely to be intolerable if a farmer could exit the scheme, even at the half-way point, without penalty.

So am I am turning into one of these difficult cranky people who will find fault with anything unwilling to embrace new thinking who time is passing by?

Or are my concerns justifiable? There are many areas of uncertainty and questions that remain unanswered.

While the programme was pushed hard by the Minister, Teagasc and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF), I get the feeling from some of their footsoldiers that they are less than fully convinced about its workability and likely efficacy.

As recently evidenced, a week can be a long time in agriculture, never mind six years. The ink had hardly dried on the statement that the World Animal Health Organization (OIE) had moved to recognise Ireland as having a 'negligible BSE risk' when a suspect case emerged.

This has not had an immediate market impact. Nor would I expect it to. At time of writing, test results are awaited. There has been no automatic down-grading of our status and, depending on whether it turns out to be a sporadic or classic case of BSE, there may not be.

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But the point is that, in the modern world, it can only take a whiff of a scare to give a market the wobbles.

In our case, we finish our male calves as bulls, the majority under 16-months. If something was to happen which meant young bulls became a no-no and we had to finish them as steers, we would need more grazing land for them and would be unable to maintain cow numbers.

This would render impossible the BDGP requirement to genotype 60pc of breeding animals based on a 2014 reference number of cows.

Objectives

And there's another thing I can't figure out Why, if one of the two key underlining objectives of this programme is to reduce the carbon output from Irish agriculture, are suckler farmers being required to maintain cow numbers?

Surely it should just be a certain percentage of breeding females in a herd have to be four or five- star by 2020, irrespective of 2014 numbers?

As I understand it, Teagasc's view is that suckler farmers should be sourcing their replacements as the first cross from the dairy herd.

I can see the logic in this, in the sense that they will have plenty of milk and that becomes ever more important as we move toward finishing animals at a younger age.

For this logic to work, then surely this is dependent on dairy farmers using suitable bulls.

From what I know, dairy farmers tend to use beef bulls to mop up their less fertile cows and the only questions they ask when selecting a bull concern the gestation period, will the bull colour the calves, as in give it a 'beef' colour, and the price?

This is not a criticism of dairy farmers. This is what makes most economic sense for them. They just want to get their cow to calve and the calf to look like a beef animal.

But if this is already happening and the dairy sector becomes even more focussed on milk now that quotas are gone, will there be enough suitable heifers available to suckler farmers down the road?

In an ideal world do Teagasc and ICBF see all suckler farmers breeding their own replacements?

When Teagasc did its trials, they were able to source the best of these crosses but ordinary farmers will not have the same luxury. Will four and five-star suckler replacement heifers be like gold dust? And at the back of my mind in all of this is that these beef indices are not well proven.

ICBF will shortly issue each applicant with information packs on the programme, indicating their reference number of cows and so on. It seems reasonable that people would wait to see these and consider what this may mean for them in a practical sense, particularly over the last few years of the scheme.

Some of issues surrounding the BDGP got an airing at the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Ariculture when Fianna Fail agriculture spokesman Eamon Ó Cuiv said so many farmers will withdraw when their information packs arrive that the "scene will be like Becher's Brook on a bad day".

Brendan Gleeson, assistant secretary at the Agriculture Department accepted the information booklet was "complex" and "difficult to read".

He pointed out they were "not blind to the issues" that have been raised and they would engage with farm bodies in the mid-term review but returning to Europe on the scheme at this stage would put payments this year's payments at risk.

That sounds to me like a can being kicked down the road.To be fair, I can understand the claim that tinkering with the scheme now could have implications for payments this year.

But which is more important - a fast scheme or one that works well?

Nor am I at all reassured by undertakings given by the Minister and Brendan Gleeson that the programme will be taken back to Europe if problems arise.

We have signed up to the programme but, unless the six-year-rule is changed, I think we are likely to pull out. However, I think we will be in the minority. I have a feeling that, now that the target has been reached, the pressure for change is gone and the fuss will die down.

On that note, I see Teagasc is telling farmers that, if they want to get out, they need to do so before payments issue at the end of the year, or before they are notified of an inspection.

afitzgerald@ independent.ie

Indo Farming