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Pat McCormack
Ex-president, ICMSA

Silence on dairy retirement/reduction scheme continues

I’m writing this on the January 26 and, as of that date, there is still no word about the Government’s intentions around much rumoured dairy reduction/retirement scheme.

I’m writing this on the January 26 and, as of that date, there is still no word about the Government’s intentions around much rumoured dairy reduction/retirement scheme. Silence around intentions and the absence of any detail would be damaging in any sector – but in farming it can be ruinous. This silence, speculation and uncertainty has reduced what should be a decisive policy step to a matter of playing with dairy families’ futures.

ICMSA participated in both the Food Vision Dairy Group and the Food Vision Beef and Sheep Group in the same good faith as we’d like to think that was the approach of all the other parties. Both groups contributed – and were set up on the basis of contributing – to informing the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, of the actions and policy needed to move forward on climate change. One of those policy recommendations was the need to introduce a dairy reduction/retirement scheme and the Government representatives enthusiastically endorsed that idea as a means to reduce the so-called national herd. The problem is that they haven’t announced a thing since then which is problematic, when the lead-in time for making decisions on dairy farms is at least two years. Individuals and families that might have considered this scheme are still left completely in the dark as regards when or how or what might be involved and we’re already into the 2023 calving season with the 2024 breeding programmes being planned. Farmers can’t think in terms of political cycles and PR calendars; we have to work seasons in advance. And we can’t play a ‘will they, won’t they?’ game – we can’t afford it and it’s grossly irresponsible and unfair to ask us to play along. I have to be as blunt as the situation requires: if the minister is serious about such a scheme, a decision on the details will have to be announced within the next month. 

The minister must know that there are many suckler farmers disappointed that their ‘exit’ scheme – again, much mused upon by official sources – never materialised. That had better not happen again and a simple glance at the dairy calendar should convince those with responsibility of the need to get all the information on payments rates and timeframes out as quickly as possible – and certainly within the next month. 

A prerequisite for any retirement/reduction scheme is that it should be voluntary. Payment rates agreed need to reflect the income loss as a result of making the reduction required by the scheme, but also a sufficient level of incentive to join the scheme in the first place. In addition, as part of the conditions of the scheme, we will argue that it should be possible for the farmer to lease his or her land subject to certain stipulations.

The Government has been very good at talking about climate action and their commitment to supporting the agriculture sector – but way too much of that support is just that: talk. It’s not too much, surely, to ask the minister and his department to refrain from speculating and increasing expectations about retirement schemes if they are not really proceeding with them in earnest. 

This is all way too serious for this kind of hyping and raising hopes. There’s a responsibility that comes with all this and, frankly, I’m surprised that I have to remind the ministers and his officials of this when all they have to do is remember the length of a breeding cycle and then look at a calendar. If that retirement/reduction scheme is going to happen at all, then there are four weeks to spell it out in full detail.