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Cow reduction scheme: 'Any action would be voluntary'

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Martin Heydon, spoke to Bernie Commins about the status of sheepmeat exports to China and the US; environmental issues; and a significant new farm-safety initiative
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Martin Heydon.

As the minister with responsibility for new market development, Minister Martin Heydon had a positive start to 2023 as the ban on Irish beef imports to China lifted. It came, we all know, after a very long and tedious period of negotiations between Chinese officials and their Irish counterparts at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM).
“The potential for grass-fed beef was certainly evident to me, when I visited China this year, in the meetings with buyers of beef. They are definitely interested in Ireland but it will take time to rebuild the momentum that we had before we were closed out,” he said.
Ireland has not yet been approved to export sheepmeat to China, but work is ongoing to change that, he says.

In 2022, Chinese demand for sheepmeat declined, generally, but that trend has seen somewhat of a reversal. In the first four months of this year, imports of sheepmeat to China increased by about 21 per cent on the same period in 2022, but overall imports are still down. However, the minister is confident that Irish sheepmeat will be on the shelves there soon and it plays into the overall aim of growing our offering in key markets, as well as making inroads to new ones.
“In 2018, we identified a number of priority third market countries for market development. Some were with the aim of getting access, and others were with a view to expanding what we already have there: China, the US, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan, South Korea would be our eight key markets. And we’ve seen progress across a number of those markets. Obviously, China is a clear example. Already we are there in a big way with pigmeat and dairy and beef is now back there. Hopefully we will see sheepmeat there as we’re making progress on that.”
In September 2021, the DAFM reached agreement with the General Administration of Customs of China (GACC) in relation to formal protocols that would pave the way for the export of sheepmeat from Ireland to China. But when will we see this come to fruition?
“In May 2023, very useful technical meetings took place with Chinese authorities. My department is putting in place the necessary framework now to facilitate this trade and we will shortly engage with industry [a July meeting] on the details and requirements of industry to export to China.
“We have also been engaging extensively with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) around sheepmeat exports to the US following the agreement on the bilateral health certificate last year. Interested sheepmeat plants can now submit a work programme to my department demonstrating how they will achieve compliance with the US requirements, so we are waiting for our sheepmeat plants to do that now.” It is hoped that progress will be made in relation to these markets before the year's end, he said.
“One market might not change the world, but it is the cumulative nature of all these trade deals that gives processors the best possible opportunity to get the best return for every part of the animal,” he says.

€60m water-improvement scheme

Closer to home, the debate on climate change and Irish agriculture’s role in that is intensifying as the weeks go by. Irish Farmers Monthly spoke to Minister Heydon just after the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its water-quality report. So how does he think we can marry our climate targets and the demands now placed on farmers in this area, with our agricultural and food-production requirements?
“A significantly enhanced Nitrates Action Programme that was introduced last year had a number of new and broadened measures to drive improvements in water-quality such as observing buffers when spreading slurry, sowing clover to reduce fertiliser use, huge actions on farms that will pay dividends, said Minister Heydon“ But the new programme has had limited opportunity to influence water quality data in that EPA report due to lagging timings between when actions were implemented and their full effect. Many of the actions only became applicable in 2023. We have to be mindful of that.” Time, he says is required for the full impact of these actions to be realised. Connected to this, he confirmed that additional measures to enhance water quality will soon be supported through a €60m investment – part of the European Innovation Partnership, aimed at results-based interventions at farm level. “This will see us working with farmers, and empowering them, similar to the model that has worked well through the Agricultural Sustainability Support and Advisory Programme.” Details of this new scheme are expected to be announced soon, he said.

Cow reduction

Reports of a dairy-cow reduction scheme that had started to circulate at the time of interviewing the minister, have evolved since then. Latest reports indicate that a Government taskforce has been established to investigate the viability of such a scheme – voluntary, of course – and we have all heard that 200,000 head may be culled over a three-year period to help us meet our climate targets. Nothing has yet been confirmed [at time of print] but Minister Heydon had this to say: “There is no scheme or secret plan to reduce cow numbers, I want to make that clear, there has been a lot of muddying the waters around this. Last October the Food Vision Dairy Group introduced a number of recommendations, and exploring the possibility of a voluntary reduction scheme was one of them, and that is what that group is doing now, looking at the proposal and taking into account all the considerations.
“We have always been clear that any action would be voluntary because that is the best way to achieve buy in. It is not unusual for my department or any department to produce modelling of what policy proposals would look like. Any scheme like this would be a serious intervention so it is really important that we know what such an intervention would deliver, what the possible drawbacks of it are, and it would have to be proven that it would be value for money. There is a way to go on this yet, but we will continue to work with the sector.”
So what is the timeframe? “There is no timeframe on this yet because a lot of analysis has to be done – what are the consequences, the drawbacks, is it value for money? The one thing Minister McConologue said is that if there is an intervention, it would be based on last year’s cow numbers so no farmer should be making any decisions relating to this now.” Questioned on whether he expected a voluntary scheme would be introduced, he said: “I have an open mind on it, I don’t know yet.”

Farm safety

As the country’s first farm-safety minister, Minister Heydon says he is proud that he has been able to secure a growing budget to invest in this area. This year, he has €2.5m to dedicate to improving farm safety, an increase of €0.3m on last year. Farming is still the most dangerous profession in Ireland and at the time of interviewing, there had been six farm fatalities since the start of 2023.
Just recently, he launched a new National Farm Safety Measure, which will provide a financial contribution to participating farmers covering 60 per cent of the eligible cost of quad bike helmets and power take off (PTO) shaft covers. A total of €1.5m has been allocated to support farmers in the purchase of this equipment.
Additionally, the Farm Safety Capital Investment Scheme under the new Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS 3) is now open. This marks the first time that farm safety investments have their own standalone scheme under TAMS and significantly, the higher grant rate of 60 per cent is available.
“This significant grant rate will make it much more attractive to upgrade the likes of animal handling facilities on farms. Incidents with animals account for the greatest number of non-fatal incidents occurring on farms and proper handling facilities such as cattle crushes, or calving pens can help prevent these incidents from occurring.”

There is a wide range of items available under the Farm Safety Scheme including fixed and mobile handling facilities for cattle, sheep, and horses, replacements for agitation points or older slats, safety cages for roofs, upgrades to electric wiring, yard lights, livestock monitors and fertility tags, wheel changing equipment, and silage bale slicer with plastic remover.