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NFFN NI: Why DAERA's proposed headage scheme is a backwards step for farming

NFFN NI has voiced its opposition to plans to introduce a headage payment scheme in Northern Ireland.

The proposal, contained in DAERA’s Future Agriculture Policy Framework consultation, which closed 15 February, suggests payments to farmers for cattle and an imposed 24-month target slaughter age.

In our consultation response, NFFN NI raised concerns about the negative environmental impacts associated with early calving and early slaughter, which it says promotes intensive livestock production and discourages traditional breeds, which are grass-fed and slow-growing.

It says the proposed scheme is counterproductive by promoting dependence on significant quantities of external inputs, such as imported feed, and is taking a “backwards step” from sustainable farming.

“This headage payment proposal risks doing more harm than good in its attempts to reduce farming’s impacts on the climate. It narrowly focuses on size over function and does not reflect genuinely sustainable farming practice,” says Michael Meharg, NFFN NI Chair.

 “This proposal is an oversimplification of livestock production. Focusing on shortening lifespans to reduce emissions fails to acknowledge the complexity of the food system, where intensifying inputs contributes to emissions elsewhere, such as loss of grassland for livestock feed, fossil fuel-based fertiliser use and transport emissions. It could even pass the proposed carbon savings offshore.”

He adds: “Herds give better profit and better environmental benefit when the stocking rates are matched to the natural carrying capacity of the land. Naturally reared livestock, grass-fed and outdoors, is more appealing to consumers who want increasingly choose nature-friendly, climate-conscious produce.”

Mr Meharg farms 280 hectares of grassland with his herd of traditional Irish moiled cattle, which he says are an important tool in managing the land for environmental benefits including ensuring crucial habitats that contribute to climate mitigation, such as species-rich grassland and flood plains, are maintained in a thriving condition.

“Managing land in this way is not all about nature, it also has a clear business benefit,” he says.

In moving towards a low input grazing regime, Michael has reduced costs for artificial fertilisers and contractor fees by around £4,500 per year. Each year, the enterprise brings in a healthy profit from beef weaned calves, pedigree cattle and increasingly from quality meat sales.

Mr Meharg says the headage payment proposal misses an opportunity to reduce inputs and maximise profitability by paying for production which masks any inefficiencies present within the business and shelters farmers from making decisions that boost their profit margins.

“The move towards headage payments isn’t in the long-term best interests of a farmer or the land. We need a healthy landscape to deliver a sustainable future for the sector,” says Mr Meharg.

He adds: “The £50 million earmarked for this scheme would be far better spent supporting farmers to adopt holistic practices across the whole farm landscape that build environmental resilience and promote the production of healthy foods in a nature-positive manner.”