A single crop strategy yielding big results
A decision to switch from mixed cropping to cereals only is paying dividends for Ian and Podge Howard
Published 13/07/2016 | 02:30
Father and son team, Podge and Ian Howard switched from a large mixed cropping enterprise specialising in potatoes five years ago to one that focuses solely on cereals - and they've never looked back.
"It's great being able to concentrate on a single crop, and we've less overheads and staffing issues," explains 27 year-old Ian, who bucked conventional thinking by leaving school at 16 to work full-time on the farm.
"Yeah, I always intended doing a course but one year led to the next and with my dad having cancer a few years ago, it made sense to be around," acknowledges the young Meath man.
Along with two full- time staff, the team manage 1,800ac of crops.
"Generally we run a six year rotation that starts with winter barley, followed by winter oilseed rape (OSR), winter wheat, two consecutive winter barleys, and then back to oilseed rape," explains Podge.
"Spring crops are minimised, and the vast majority of the land is rented or leased on a five-year basis."
The most eye-catching of the many fine machines lined up in the Howards' yard for the Goldcrop trial plot evening was their one-pass sower with a front mounted liquid fertiliser tank.
"It's a great job," enthuses Podge.
"We tried it for the first time last year on a 160ac farm that we rented over at Dunboyne that was as poor as a church mouse - all the indexes were at 1. The section that we used it on gave us an extra 1t/ac."
But Ian admits that is the top end of the benefits. "It's probably more likely to be giving us an extra 0.4t/ac on average ground," he said.
That's a significant boost in sector where the small margins add up."It's the last 10pc of your output that is delivering your margin," says Goldcrop variety manager John Dunne.
He believes that the old benchmark of 4t/ac for a really good winter barley crop is history, and the Howards' yields for last year certainly bear that out.
"There were some fields of winter wheat that averaged over 6t/ac, with a field of Horatio hitting 6.3t/ac, but that was one where everything just happened to be right," says Ian.
Those kind of yields, coupled with the scale of the operation helped the Howards justify the €15,000 that the 1,500 litre stainless steel front-mounted liquid fertiliser tank cost. But there's also plenty of logic behind the kit.
"It works out around the same overall cost as broadcasting the fertiliser, but you're getting more bang for your buck."
With grain prices still sliding towards €120/t for wheat, it is interesting to hear that the canny Howards forward sold not just last year's crop last summer, but this year's too.
"We always sell about 50-60pc of the crop before harvest, but by selling this year's crop last year, we were able to lock in on prices of over €180/t for dried grain. Usually we sell another chunk by November," says Ian.
All the straw is baled and sold for €35-38/bale, ex-yard to Northern Irish customers.
He has an unusual grain drying set-up in that he doesn't burn a single drop of diesel to dry the 5,500t of grain every autumn.
"We just have three big fans that blow air up through slats in the floor of the shed. Even if the grain hits 30pc moisture, we can get it down to 16pc using this system. It's a great job," he says.
And in the never-ending race to get bigger, it's refreshing to hear a farmer content with the existing set-up."We're not really looking to expand. We already need four extra part-time lads when the pressure is on."
Plough and one-pass combi is the default sowing rig
While the Howards have a Claydon min-till drill, they still look on their plough and one-pass combination as their default sowing rig.
“There’s an extra set of tines on the front of the Claydon which is ripping the ground down to about 10-12 inches which is great for OSR and winter wheat. Before this we had a Heva subsoiler for the OSR, but it was a disaster on heavy land.
“When you plough, you can have confidence that you’re not going to end up with a slug problem or something else.”
“Really if conditions are anyway dodgy, you’re back to the plough, and that’s the reality when you’re taking on new rented ground or swapping with somebody growing spuds,” explains Ian.
Meanwhile, the Howards have opted for a tracked machine instead of the flotation tyres that had become standard on their previous combines to give more stability in bad conditions. However, there is a price, with tracks adding another €30,000 to the already hefty price tag of €400,000 for this machine.