There is "no evidence whatsoever" to suggest that animals are dying from malnutrition as a result of the fodder crisis, Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed has said.
There have been widespread reports that animals are dying and that knackery units are acting at a greater capacity.
The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association said last week the number of dead animals going to knackeries had doubled in March as a result of the fodder crisis.
Mr Creed said his own department’s figures showed that mortality levels for animals were below average for January and February.
He told the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture that if there was a spike in animal mortality, it was because animals have had to be locked up for six months and many fall and have accidents.
“There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest there is any level of malnutrition of animals fuelling those numbers,” he said. “There is no reason for any animal to die from malnutrition.”
Fine Gael Senator Michelle Mulherin said farmers were "on their knees and frightened right now" because grass growth was just beginning and even small farmers with 30-40 head of cattle had already spent between €2,000 and €2,500 on fodder this year.
She said there was an increasing problem of “fallen animals” as a result of poor nutrition. It costs €180-€200 to get rid of dead animals and she suggested there should be a subsidy for farmers in that regard.
Mr Creed defended his handling of the fodder crisis and said criticisms that he should have acted earlier do “not stand up to scrutiny”.
Had he ordered a fodder importation scheme in February or March, there would have been no takers for it from the co-ops who had been sourcing the fodder overseas, he told the committee.
He also said had he ordered fodder to be imported last October, he would have been accused of wasting public money.
Mr Creed said he anticipated that 20,000 tonnes of fodder would be brought into the country by the end of April, a figure similar to the amount imported in 2013.
He acknowledged, though, that the department needed to learn from the fodder crisis and from the lessons of climate change, but he said it was not time to dismantle the Food Wise 2025 10-year plan for the agri-food sector.
The Minister was repeatedly criticised by members of the committee for his response to the fodder crisis which has occurred as a result of a wet harvest and a late spring.
Fianna Fáil agriculture spokesman Charlie McConalogue said there was "no leadership from the department".
Mr McConalogue said he had warned the Minister before Easter to have contingency plans in place to import fodder into the country, yet he accused Mr Creed of devising a plan only last week.
Sinn Féin agriculture spokesman Martin Kenny said the possibility of a fodder crisis had been flagged up as early as last October and Mr Creed had adopted the "basic mantra" that there was no crisis. Mr Kenny warned there was now a serious animal welfare issue going on and he suggested many farmers did not have the financial resources even to take out a loan.
Instead, he recommended meal vouchers be put in place for farmers to buy food for their animals.
Mr Creed ruled out providing meal subsidies for farmers saying that the department did not provide direct aid in such a manner.
Following his appearances, IFA president Joe Healy said he was disappointed the Minister would not be providing meal vouchers.
He said: “IFA has consistently campaigned for a meal voucher system for farmers. The Minister has refused to consider this, despite universal support for the meal voucher proposal.”