Saturday 18 April 2015

Cereal growers must be praying that forecasts of another poor spring will prove to be off the mark

Pat Minnock

Published 23/01/2013 | 06:00

It is a year that will not easily be forgotten by tillage farmers. While statistics for 2012 will show that rainfall for the year was about average, the rain that did fall still had a serious impact on yields and quality.

In June 2012 crops never looked better. But after this there was a significant deterioration in the weather and a very wet and difficult harvest confirmed our worst fears, with yield reductions of 25-35pc in all crops.

It helped that cereal prices continued to improve. Unfortunately for growers, the amount of forward selling wiped out the advantages of the higher prices in many cases.

There is plenty of scientific research that shows that heavy rainfalls wash essential chemicals such as nitrogen compounds and trace elements out of soil. As a result, plants therefore take up fewer nutrients and incorporate fewer in the edible parts harvested for consumption.

In a year like 2012, less sunshine reaches the leaves and fruit during wet weather so the biochemical reactions that require bright light to produce starch, sugars and flavour compounds proceed more slowly.

Both of these factors affected last year's cereal crops, with grains failing to fill out as plants matured during the summer. With fruit and vegetables, visual quality also suffered.

The only way the plant can compromise is by producing fewer fruits per plant so the available nutrients and sugars are concentrated in a smaller volume. This maintained flavour and nutrition in many cases.

Soil conditions have failed to improve due to poor drying conditions and many soils are still less than suitable for ploughing. Some forecasters are indicating we are due a wet spring.

Any further excessive rainfall will cause more serious problems than 2012 as soil has suffered so much already and has not had time to recover.

The one thing that meteorologists in agreement and consistent on is that climate change is producing more extreme weather. So a warm dry summer is every bit as possible as a wet one.

What is essential is that soil is worked in the best possible condition, otherwise yield penalties will accrue.

Growers will know their own land best and will be able to work some land in less than ideal conditions. This may be required if drying conditions fail to improve and some badly damaged soil may need to be ploughed or turned over to have any chance of drying out.

Decisions should be made based on experience with your own soils.

Crop choice will also be important and break crops are worth considering. Winter wheat sowings are at about 50pc of last year, while winter barley is between 80-90pc and oats at about 70pc.

Cereal seed supply, especially spring wheat seed, is very scarce. So growers are advised to get their orders in early. However, there is still time to plant winter wheat varieties.

Spring oilseed rape may be a good option for hard-to-dry soils and later sowing but, be aware, the later sowing will also lead to later harvesting.

Hybrid varieties of spring oilseed rape, such as Delight, can be sown from mid-March onwards and should have a harvest date around the first week of September. Spring beans are also a good option. Contracts for next harvest are available at €230/t. However, seed is scarce, especially the variety Fuego. Beans should be sown at a depth of 10-15cm in February or early March at 180-200kg/ha and treated pre-emergence with Nirvana plus Lingo. Rolling should be avoided unless seed bed conditions are excellent.

There is a growing interest in beet, especially for supply to anaerobic digesters (AD) in the North. With up to 90 AD plants currently in the planning process in Northern Ireland the potential for beet is substantial.

At a price of €40/t ex-yard, this is a crop that will be attractive to many experienced beet growers. Needless to say, the outlet for this beet needs to be carefully assessed in advance to ensure payment. Members of the ITCA are currently exploring possibilities in this area.

Pat Minnock is a Carlow based agricultural consultant and a member of the ACA and the ITCA.

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