Future is bright but costs are rising and grain prices falling
Last year was a year of big harvests. For Irish cereal growers, most of their horses romped home. Compared to 2010, which in itself was also a good year for the grower, 2011 acreage was up 7pc, yields were up 13pc and prices were up 7pc. The 2011 scene was similarly excellent for oilseed rape, peas and beans.
Why were yields so good in 2011? Can we expect the higher prices to continue?
These and other questions were addressed at last week's well-attended Teagasc national tillage conference in Kilkenny. If we had the answers to these questions we could bottle the 2011 template and plan for bumper harvests every year. It sure would be nice to hold onto the feel-good factor that was in Kilkenny.
Of course, all was not perfect in 2011. The poor market for straw was a negative. Maize yields were also disappointing. Low proteins in grain, particularly in malting barley, were the subject of a conference paper.
This was my first national tillage conference and getting definitive answers was probably expecting too much. Listening to the Teagasc experts I concluded that the 2011 yields owed more to divine, rather than man's, intervention.
The weather in 2011 saw a warm, dry spring followed by a cool, but sunny, summer. This combination of good seed beds, full germination and strong tillering led to high plant numbers and a full-leaf canopy. The cooler weather then led to a long period of grain fill for the high number of grains present. High ear numbers and full grains result in bumper yields.
Ritchie Hackett of Teagasc Oakpark discussed the challenge of raising the protein levels in malting barley. Teagasc's advice led to a raising of the nitrogen limit on malting barley from 135kg/ha last summer to a possible 175kg/ha. But even at these higher levels some Teagasc Oakpark plots still didn't reach the 9.5pc protein target. Splitting the nitrogen also helped but having high levels of organic matter in the soil seemed to give the best prospect for lifting grain protein.
Teagasc Oakpark scientist Steven Kildea said he was shocked at the high levels of septoria in fields of wheat in Cork last May and June. He said that rapid leaf growth in April was followed by a wet but early May which delayed the fungicide spray but promoted Septoria. He concluded that fresh leaves should be protected in advance of a fungal attack. Waiting until the disease is on the crop is too late.