Over the coming 10 days, DAERA Minister Edwin Poots is expected to take some important decisions on the direction of travel for agricultural policy in NI.
Updating members of the Stormont Agriculture committee last Thursday, DAERA Director Dr Rosemary Agnew confirmed that officials are currently preparing recommendations for the minister, informed by responses to a public consultation which closed on 15 February 2022.
“He [Minister Poots] will need time to consider before any final decisions are made, but our expectation is that those decisions will be made before the pre-election period,” said Agnew.
She also confirmed the minister can make the decisions without seeking approval from the wider Stormont Executive. “There is no intention to take it to the Executive because it hasn’t been there to date,” she said.
Throughout the pre-election period, which begins on 28 March 2022, Minister Poots remains in office, but cannot make any new announcements ahead of the 5 May election.
In her evidence last Thursday, Agnew confirmed that 339 responses were received to the DAERA consultation, of which 284 were from individuals, with the rest from various organisations, including farming (30) and the environment (11).
An initial high-level summary of responses shows that there was widespread support for a new area-based resilience measure which is to account for the bulk of support payments in the early years of a new regime.
There was also a “broad agreement” among respondents that DAERA should apply a progressive cap on resilience payments starting at £60,000, but significant opposition to a proposal to increase the minimum claim size from 3ha to 10ha.
“It was one of the areas where we received most negative comments. A very significant proportion of respondents were against increasing minimum claim size to 10ha. This is obviously something now that Minister Poots will need to consider,” acknowledged Agnew.
On proposals for two new beef headage schemes, funded by taking up to 17% off the overall budget, Agnew described the general response from consultation respondents as “mixed”.
While farming organisations were generally supportive, they did raise significant concerns about conditions attached to payments. The initial DAERA plan is to introduce a suckler cow measure, with payments limited to heifers first calving at under 30 months (less than 27 months by year four) and to sucklers with a calving interval under 400 days (370 days by year four).
There is also a beef transformation measure, with payments to beef cattle slaughtered at under 30 months, moving to under 24 months by year four of the scheme.
A key aim of these headage payments is to reduce the overall carbon footprint of NI beef production.
However, it was put to Agnew that the second scheme will lead to farmers feeding more concentrate to finish cattle at younger ages, so any potential gains will be offset by higher emissions linked to imported feed.
Responding, she said DAERA is aware of “unintended consequences”, but added: “We do have significant evidence which shows that the earlier finishing of beef cattle does reduce carbon emissions over their lifetime.”
A number of respondents to the DAERA consultation argued sheep should also be included in a headage scheme, with the Ulster Farmers’ Union warning that if ewes are left out it could upset the balance between cattle and sheep on NI farms. However, Agnew did not give much comfort that there might be a change of mind. “The ability to use this mechanism to drive productivity and reduce carbon emissions is less obvious in relation to sheep. The responses did not clearly identify a need,” she said.
Longer term, the DAERA consultation does suggest that a breeding ewe payment might be re-considered where relevant on-farm data is being collected as part of a new livestock genetics programme.
Funding headage-based schemes
When under the EU CAP regime, NI received funding for direct payments (Pillar I) and for Rural Development (Pillar II).
However, with funding now coming from the British Treasury, everything has been lumped together, and the Future Agricultural Policy consultation includes schemes that previously would have been divided into the two different CAP payment pots.
In total, direct payments to NI farmers are worth approximately £293m, but the total replacement EU funding is around £312m for the incoming financial year, rising to around £330m for the following two years.
Explaining the change in approach, Dr Rosemary Agnew said that assuming 17% is taken to fund headage-based schemes, it is likely to be a top slice taken off the overall budget, not just direct payments.
“We will take money from it for headage out of the total budget, not modulating necessarily from single farm payment,” she said.
She also confirmed that outside of some small pilot environmental programmes in 2023, significant changes to payments are still some way off.
“The rollout might be from the beginning of 2024, but that is still to be decided,” she said.
Feed additives to reduce methane
Included in the DAERA consultation are proposals to incentivise ‘Farming for Carbon’ which are likely to encourage farmers to take actions such as growing more trees and energy crops, mixed-species swards, and using protected urea fertiliser.
Also listed in the DAERA document is the use of feed additives to reduce biogenic methane released from ruminant livestock. Given that recently agreed climate change legislation in NI includes a separate target for methane, it is an area likely to see much focus in coming years.
“We are looking at how we might amend that [proposal on feed additives], or what priority we might put to that in terms of our recommendations to the minister,” confirmed Dr Rosemary Agnew last Thursday.
However, she acknowledged that some respondents felt that the farming for carbon measures did not go far enough, and they wanted to see livestock numbers reduced.
But the majority of responses were positive towards the upcoming soil nutrient health scheme which is to measure nutrients and carbon stocks across all NI farms. There was also “good agreement” that farm nutrient management planning be linked to getting future support payments.
MLAs against 10ha minimum claim
A position paper from MLAs on the Stormont Agriculture committee has called on DAERA to set out more detail on how quickly farmers might transition away from area-based payments.
Warning of “confusion and uncertainty” among farmers, MLAs are broadly supportive of the need to retain an area-based payment by way of a resilience measure.
However, they urge DAERA to reconsider a proposed 10ha minimum claim for this resilience payment, suggesting instead it should be set at 5ha or 7.5ha.