Farm Ireland

Tuesday 28 March 2017

Grain conference offers some hope

Michael Hennessy

It wasn't difficult to judge the mood of tillage farmers who attended the National Tillage Conference last week. Although there was a sense of apathy among many, others arrived with some optimism as the cost of fertiliser was a long way down from last year. There was a quiet questioning of the whole tillage production system and whether crops should be planted this spring or not.

The first paper from the HGCA's Heike Heintze-Gharres certainly didn't raise the mood of the room as her message was one of prices last year mirroring those of this year. Factors such as a large carry-over of grain stocks, especially in EU member states, were going to keep prices quite flat.

Michael Howey, a farmer and owner of Country Crest Foods, gave an excellent paper which injected optimism and suggested ideas that everybody in the audience could believe in. Michael has taken his farm produce, added value and created a profitable business. He maintains that producing a commodity, such as wheat or barley, will continue to be difficult as Irish tillage growers will always find it difficult to compete with the scale in larger countries. He pointed to the success of national brands such as Kerrygold and Jameson Whiskey, which are sold internationally. As an example, he put forward the idea of taking quality Irish food -- say, wheat sold as wholemeal flour -- and developing and maintaining a sustained marketing campaign behind it. He suggested the product should be branded with the Irish flag so that any Irish abroad will identify with it. At a local level, he says Guinness could increase sales by using the resource of homegrown malting barley and then promoting its inclusion with the use of the Irish flag. He finished his well thought-out paper by encouraging the industry to come together and develop a national plan for the benefit of all.

The audience listened to a paper by the Department of the Environment's Colin Byrne, who gave an outline of the new Water Framework Directive.

The news from Colin was mixed but, overall, more regulations -- perhaps more stringent than we have at the moment -- are coming down the line. Research work is guiding some of these decisions and informing policy, such as the time lags between modifying practice and seeing an improvement in water quality.

Growers in the audience were understandably upset at the prospect of more regulations, and many forcefully pointed out the realities of farming. Even though the message from the Department of the Environment official was not great, farmers must be informed of what's coming down the track. It is only if the industry is well informed that it can react proactively.

The landscape for controlling septoria has changed in Ireland. Teagasc pointed out the changes early last year -- to the dissatisfaction of some -- with the hope of averting the worst-case scenario. As it turned out, last year's control of septoria in fields was generally good. However, sticking to the fungicide programme that was followed last year may not be the best idea.

The main message from Eugene O'Sullivan and John Spink was that Septoria populations are changing, and have changed very significantly in some fields. The changed population is now made up of subgroups which are less susceptible to different triazole fungicides. The effect of this change in one trial showed that the persistence of triazoles was affected. However, the same trial showed it is possible to get good control of septoria, but a planned approach is needed. Using triazole mixes and applying higher rates will be a feature of this year's septoria control programmes (this will depend on septoria pressure). Using an ad-hoc programme, based on a single active ingredient throughout the season, may have worked in the past but will probably fail this year.

Irish Independent