A recommendation within the interim report of the Food Vision beef and sheep group to introduce a suckler reduction scheme has been heavily criticised by farm organisations. It follows on from the dairy vision group where a similar proposal appeared to be put forward by the Department of Agriculture without any meaningful consultation with farmers. The approach does little to garner farmers support around what are highly sensitive policy issues.
However, the poor method of engagement should not prevent a proper discussion taking place on the pros and cons of a scheme that allows for a restructuring of the suckler herd. Regardless of whether a scheme is in place, there are a range of factors that are going to put real pressure on the suckler sector in the coming year.
No coupled payment
The decision not to introduce a coupled payment on suckler cows as part of CAP reform and to instead allocated €250m to a low-intensity organic scheme is going to force a percentage of farmers to reduce cow numbers.
In addition, more intensive suckler and beef farmers will be forced to adjust their system to reflect the negative impact of convergence on their direct payments. Recent Irish Farmers Journal analysis shows that these farms will see their payments reduce by 20% in the coming years, having been reduced by 30% over previous CAP reforms.
The impact of these cuts on the economic viability of the sector will be severe, with Teagasc National Farm Survey data showing that in 2021, direct payments made up 138% of income on suckler farms.
There is also the increased competition for land. Changes to the nitrates derogation is already affecting the land rental market as dairy farmers seek to increase their land area in a bid to maintain stock numbers. With Teagasc data showing income per hectare from dairying to be five times higher than suckling, maintaining access to the land rental market is another issue on the horizon for suckler farmers.
Against this backdrop, it would be short-sighted to simply dismiss any scheme that would support suckler farmers in restructuring their farm business. Instead, efforts should focus on how a scheme could be designed to allow flexibility at an individual farm level.
A payment linked to a tradeable suckler quota system offers potential alongside the introduction of new tax reliefs that support herd restructuring. Ultimately, it should not be beyond the ability of Department officials in proper consultation with farmers to bring forward a voluntary scheme that provides supports to farmers who want to reduce cow numbers and continues to support those who maintain or increase production.