Tier 2 delays and ammonia fears stalling farm investment

Delays in the Tier 2 grant scheme and fears of falling foul of tightened ammonia limits have put many Northern Ireland farmers off investing in major infrastructure projects.

Speaking at a briefing for industry stakeholders and members of the farming press, Ulster Bank’s senior agriculture manager, Cormac McKervey, said the issues had become recurrent topics in staff discussions with farmers.

Ammonia

“We all want to protect the environment and everything that goes with it,” he said.

“For years we have been focused on greenhouse gasses – and we were aware of ammonia but on an intensive scale that was pig and poultry, and that was very well policed.

“Now we are hearing in Northern Ireland that our ammonia levels are twice what they are in GB and 70% of our ammonia emissions are now coming from cattle – particularly dairy cows.”

McKervey said “sensible decisions” needed to be made based on local science.

“AFBI is working very hard to get research up and running – but it’s very important that it does, and that farmers are made aware of where they stand,” he added.

‘Changing their habits’

Total agricultural debt sits at £966 million (€1,116 million) – a figure said to be almost unchanged over recent years.

However, he added that farmers were being much more careful about how they were approaching lending, with some changing their plans to pre-empt problems with planning.

“Because at the minute we have farmers who would like to develop their business – be that an extension of a dairy unit or a pig unit or something else – and they are very, very cautious about approaching planning for fear that if they go to planning they are going to have to have an ammonia test – and if they fail it then what does that mean for the existing business, never mind what was proposed.

“Working in that vacuum isn’t a good place to be, so farmers are then changing their habits.

Traditionally, we would have been seeing larger-scale developments on pig farms, but now these farmers are going for a smaller unit which doesn’t trigger planning so there’s not the need for ammonia testing.

Frustratingly for those involved – particularly in the dairy sector – McKervey explained that many of the investments would not have been to expand the farm, but instead to reduce labour – such as by changing to a robotic milking parlour or improving their current parlour.

Tier 2 delays

Similarly, there had been behavioural changes in some of the other sectors.

He said: “Most of Moy Park’s expansions have come to an end but certainly there is a very steady flow in terms of free-range eggs.

“More and more are trying to move to free-range eggs – a few have been held up in planning; a few have been held up with the grant system.

Some farmers have decided they are not going to wait for the grant system any more – it’s just taking too long.

“Maybe the processor has said that if you don’t [get started] you’re going to miss your slot.”

McKervey said customers over the last 12 months had been “much more business-orientated” than in the past.

“They will say they are going to do this because the price is good and there’s a decent rationale behind the requests that are coming in now,” he said.