The DAERA consultation on future agricultural policy makes it clear that new headage payments for suckler cows and beef cattle are being put in place to improve environmental sustainability, while also making the sector more profitable.

The proposals are well-intentioned, and in the case of a payment for finished beef cattle, there is logic in encouraging farmers to slaughter cattle at younger ages, reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions per head. In year one, the maximum age at slaughter to qualify for a payment is 30 months, which moves to 24 months by year four.

There are two conditions attached to the scheme

However, much more thought needs to be given to the proposed suckler cow scheme, given that current eligibility criteria would rule out the majority of the NI suckler herd.

There are two conditions attached to the scheme. The first relates to age at first calving, with the maximum set at 30 months in year one, moving to 27 months by year four.

The second is the calving interval (CI) of each cow, which must be under 400 days in year one, and below 370 days in year four.

“Full payment would only be made on suckler animals that give birth to live calves that are registered with DAERA and meet the targets for first calving and calving interval,” states the DAERA document.

That suggests heifers are immediately ruled out as they will not be able to meet the CI criteria. However, with the average age at first calving for beef animals in NI around 31 months, and the average CI at 415 days, the majority of mature suckler cows in NI would also be excluded.

High-performing herds

But even if we just look at herds who calve all their heifers at 24 months, the CI criteria will mean a significant proportion of cows are not eligible for payments.

To illustrate the point, shown in Table 1 is a summary of calving data from 2020 across 10 NI suckler farms that have worked closely with the Irish Farmers Journal in recent years. These farms are at the top of their game, with an overall calving index across the 10 herds of 370 days. That is close to the ideal of 365 days.

Taking CI below 365 days would mean that you are calving earlier every year, potentially extending the period inside, so it is not a desirable target to achieve.

Across the 10 herds there were 721 calvings. Of these, 21.78% were heifers, and under the current DAERA criteria, they would be automatically excluded. That leaves 564 mature cows on the 10 farms. Of these, most have a CI under 400 days, but nearly 40% do not meet the year four target for a CI below 370 days.

Our analysis therefore suggests that with first calvers also removed, 70% of sucklers on these top-performing farms would be eligible for the payment in year one (compared to a NI average of around 22%). This drops to 48% if the criteria for year four are applied.

Comment: New criteria for payments

Ultimately, the criteria for a new suckler scheme as laid out in the DAERA consultation are simply proposals at this stage. It is for the farm lobby organisations to put forward suggestions for how they might change, and for DAERA policy officials to consider what implications those changes might have.

The DAERA consultation outlines how the purpose of the scheme is to improve environmental sustainability and profitability, and that it should not be seen as just another way of allocating money to farmers, or of increasing the output of NI beef.

Against that backdrop, below are some initial thoughts and suggested changes to consider:

1 Establishing a quota: Each suckler farmer will be given a quota based on historic years. This quota should not be based on the average number of suckler cows in the herd, as that penalises farmers who are already following best practice by removing cows with poor fertility. Instead, the quota should be based on the number of beef-bred calves born on the farm in the reference year(s) chosen.

2 Calving interval: The maximum CI for an individual suckler cow to qualify for the payment should be set at 430 days. That automatically excludes a long tail of cows that might only produce a calf once every two years, and will drive significant positive change in the sector. It also gives some latitude to a farmer hit with an unexpected issue with an infertile bull. For any cow with a CI over 430 days (calved on 1 April 2020 and didn’t calve again until 5 June 2021), her next stop should be the local abattoir.

3 Eligibility of mature cows: In year one of the new payment all mature cows should be potentially eligible, irrespective of the age at first calving.

4 Heifers: All heifers that calve below 30 months should be included for the payment in year one, and it is not unreasonable that this moves to under 27 months by year four.

To prevent farmers just putting lots of heifers in calf (and potentially increasing stock numbers) so as to ensure they fully utilise their quota, the number of heifers should be limited to a maximum of 25% of the total claim.

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