Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Why were so many farmers hung out to dry on the Basic Payment?

Storm desmond. Photo: PA
Storm desmond. Photo: PA

John Heney

Elvis Presley fans will remember January 8 as their hero's birthday. However in my case, the reason I will remember this day is because that was when I eventually received my 2015 Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) monies; nearly three months after the first payments were due.

My preference for fattening Friesian cattle probably precludes me from ever being considered a "good" cattle farmer.

However, down through the years it is these same Friesian cattle, who without fail, always leave me a profit.

Fortuitously, in the absence of my BPS payment it was this profit which allowed me to enjoy a normal Christmas this year.

Unfortunately not every cattle farmer is as lucky. Teagasc income figures show that on average cattle farmers tend to lose money on their cattle enterprises. They are obliged to rely on their basic payment to not alone pay many of their farm bills, but also to feed and clothe their families.

Our Minister and his officials should be well aware of this unfortunate reality, so why were so many cattle farmers hung out to dry this Christmas, with not a red cent to show for all the work and effort they undertook in the previous year?

Like me, most of these farmers will have done absolutely nothing wrong - all the forms were filled in correctly, lodged on time and any changes required were entered accurately.

When I telephoned the Department helpline in early November the staff were most helpful and understanding. They told me that any adjustments that I had made in this year's submission would cause a delay, even if they were correctly entered.

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They took my phone number and said that they would get the relevant section to ring me back. As promised, a lady dealing with my file rang me on November 26 saying that everything was in order. However, Christmas came and went, but no payment arrived.

As I fed my cattle on Christmas morning I couldn't help thinking of the many hundreds of farming families around the country for whom this Christmas season must have been a nightmare, simply because of the apparent inability of the Department to process correctly submitted applications on time.

It is also disappointing to note the disquieting silence on this issue shown by some of our farming organisations during this highly expensive period coming up to Christmas.

I feel that all farming organisations would do well to remember that their solitary role is to look after the welfare of their ordinary members, not to enhance the self-importance of any group or individual.


Meanwhile back on the farm my plan to delaying housing as late as possible this winter turned out to be a very interesting exercise.

As I mentioned last month, the first half of my cattle weren't housed until the December 1.

I divided the remaining store cattle into small lots and spread them around approximately half of my farm.

It was amazing how well they did, helped in no small way by the very mild December weather.

Of course the rain and storms were the real challenge. I succeeded in surviving Storm Desmond, but Storm Frank eventually forced my hand and I put some more cattle in on December 27, with the final pen going in three days later.

I was amazed to see how well cattle can do outside when they have enough room and enough to eat.

We can't expect to get such a mild autumn every year, so I am determined to be much better prepared for next winter.

Of course the other aspect of the recent mild weather is how green the countryside looks and how well grass has grown.

I know that we still have a long way to go, but with a bit of luck it should be possible to get cattle out much earlier next spring.

Unfortunately it appears that the 30-month issue is not going away.

Just when we thought that we were coming to terms with the myriad of Department guidelines, it seems that the processing sector is determined to impose their own complex set of rules and regulations for us to comply with.

With New Year factory prices remaining disappointingly static, and various reports suggesting that the cattle trade doesn't look great for 2016, I find it extremely difficult to listen to all the patronising hoohah that's trotted out about how great our unique grass based production system is.

It is difficult to rationalise these platitudes about our great grass-based beef with statements that claim that consumers are increasingly insisting on under 30-month beef, especially when we all know how difficult it is to finish these cattle on a genuinely grass-only diet.

Perhaps if our processors and retailers exercised a little more honesty and openness with their consumers and explain the difficulties involved in producing grass-finished beef - without the supplementary feeding of meal, most of which contains GMO's- the issue would very quickly resolve itself.

In the absence of such an open approach we can only presume that the 30-month issue is simply being used as a cynical bargaining ploy by the large retail groups to reduce the price they pay the processors and so drive down the price paid to farmers.

John Heney is a beef farmer from Kilfeacle, Co Tipperary

Indo Farming