Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Thursday 19 October 2017

Expensive conacre means you're working for nothing

TILLAGE

Patrick J Phelan

The conacre racket has begun in earnest yet again. It is basically farmers bidding to buy work without any realistic prospect of payback.

It has been a feature of Irish tillage farmers for as long as I have been working. Perhaps it is an innate fear that if they allowed themselves to make money that they might spend it foolishly.

The reward for renting expensive conacre is more work, increased machinery costs, extra labour, long hours and a guarantee that your tax bill will be reduced as your income from the conacre will be less than expenses.

Almost equally as satisfactory as reducing the tax bill is the fact that you can justify the purchase of more machinery. More machinery will commit you to more conacre and more work.

The price of conacre is determined by supply and demand. If there is more land available than there are customers for it, its price drops.

Conversely more customers than land results in a price increase which may make the rental price uneconomic. This year the problem is aggravated by the fact that there are more dairy farmers looking to rent additional land.

Their margins are considerably higher than those from tillage so they are in a position to pay higher prices, which are totally uneconomic for cereals cropping.

RISK

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Perhaps the conacre can be justified by the fact that you need additional land to draw down your entitlements. But the more land you have, the greater the risk of breaching cross compliance requirements.

Most farmers are aware that before you remove a hedgerow you must plant a similar length of hedgerow to replace it.

Hedgerows can only be removed for "good reasons such as farmyard expansion." A similar requirement is in place for drains so that if you propose filling in a drain you must dig one of equal length somewhere else on the holding.

In the event of taking on new land where the previous occupier failed to do the reinstatement work, you, as the new tenant, could still be penalised for non-compliance.

Tillage farmers have traditionally made good land out of bad. Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations have placed significant controls on such activity.

All farmers should have received a booklet from the Department outlining the requirements. If yours is missing, the information can be got from your ACA consultant, Teagasc, or the Department of Agriculture.

If you intend to remove more than 500m of hedgerow, re-contour more than 2ha or enlarge a field to more than 5ha, you must apply to the Department for 'screening' to determine if an EIA is necessary before commencing work.

The requirement for screening also applies to works to bring uncultivated land or semi-natural areas into intensive agriculture where the area exceeds 5ha or it may impact on a proposed natural heritage area or nature reserve.

Works governed by this requirement range from ploughing to the increased use of organic or chemical fertiliser, sowing seeds or even just clearing existing vegetation mechanically or with herbicides.

In the 11-month period up to the end of last August there were 119 applications for screening, of which 82pc were approved; 9pc refused; 1pc were part approved; and 8pc were withdrawn, deemed either exempt or requiring local authority approval.

Applications for screening generally have a turnaround time of four to six weeks. Therefore, if you propose undertaking this type of work this spring, you should be applying for screening now.

Another cross-compliance issue, easily forgotten for those renting new lands, is to have a soil organic matter sample for every 4ha that is six or more years in cultivation.

Where the land is uniform and managed uniformly the sampling area may be increased to 8ha.

SOIL

In the absence of soil samples taken within the past six years, you must assume an phosphorus (P) index of 3 in your nutrient management plan (unless the previous sample was index 4).

Index 3 only allows 25kg/ha of P to be applied. An additional 3.8kg/ha can be applied for cereal crop yields over 6.5t/ha, but this is still not enough on soils of poorer fertility.

Get sols samples done now so as to allow full yield potential.

Finally, if conacre is not going to be viable for you this year you should consider stacking entitlements or possibly selling some as there is no point in working for nothing or indeed to make a loss.

Patrick J Phelan is a member of ACA and ITCA and may be contacted at pj.phelan@itca.ie

Irish Independent