Business Farming

Monday 26 September 2016

Tillage: Striking a balance between crop needs and potential returns

Richard Hackett

Published 13/04/2016 | 02:30

Winter barley
Winter barley

There is always one day at this time of year when a winter crop moves from winter slumber to vibrant spring growth, literally overnight.

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Pass a field one day and it's a sickly mix of yellows, browns and pastel mint; the next day it's a vibrant green bursting at the seams absorbing the spring sunshine. That day was last week in a particular field of winter barley I passed two days in succession. So spring has sprung and for the next few weeks it will be a succession of spreading, spraying and monitoring growth to look after their every need to ease a crop towards harvest.

With the current depressed trade for grain, more than ever it will be a compromise between what the crop needs, or is perceived to need, and the economic return of every expense.

The land costs, the machinery costs, the fertiliser costs are more or less fixed at this point, most of the pesticide inputs are also essential. However there are opportunities to minimise expense, every box of spray that can be left on the shelf is one less cost that will have to be covered by grain in a few months' time.

Areas that can be looked at include growth regulation, especially in wheat. The ability of a crop to stand until harvest is predominantly a result of successful crop breeding and trialling in our temperate climate, and also nitrogen rate and timing.

Growth regulation is well back in fourth place as a mechanism for keeping a crop standing. While still necessary, a single well timed application of cycocel will be just as effective as the most complex regulation 'programme' that seems to be gaining favour in places.

Other areas of cost that needs to be examined is that of micro nutrient application. It is well established that a crop that is suffering from nutrient deficiency will generally respond to an application of that nutrient. For example, if a particular crop has a manganese deficiency, applying manganese early in the season will result in increased yields.

However, it is just as true that if a crop is not suffering from a manganese deficiency, no amount of additional manganese will result in any increase in yield. All too often prophylactic applications of micronutrients is just money wasted.

The use of the 'magic feeds 'and multi-mixes is also an area where we've lost the plot over in the last few years. There is a myriad of these products around, generally sold on the basis that they 'improve roots' which is always good as you can't see roots.

Often they are accompanied by re-assuring pictures of treated and untreated plots side by side, the treated a richer greener colour than the untreated.

This is often the case, most of these mixes contain a level of nitrogen, which causes a temporary boost in the colour of the leaves post application. However, unless you are a paint shop, you can't sell colour, and too often significant grain yield boosts are not available from these trials.

There are instances when use of these products are completely justified, for a crop suffering from pests or poor emergence etc, they can provide a quick 'shot in the arm' to get it going.

However, applications of such products across the board to healthy vigorous crops will only affect the bottom margin in the negative. There is also the uncomfortable feeling with these products that they are not governed by the same legislation that pesticides are.

There is little or no requirement for these products to prove efficacy, or maintain proof of production standards, or carry out any of the exhaustive trials processes that are required by the authorities for pesticides, so 'buyer beware' is a more serious concern.

The use of fungicides is well established and given the pressure that our crops are under from fungal disease, comprehensive control programmes are a necessary part of production systems.

However, even in this area it is easy to get carried away with costs and it is crucial that all fungicide mixes are devised on the basis of both scientific and least cost principles, rather than the mantra that I often hear that 'more is better'.

Once you have committed to growing a crop, there is little enough that can be done to minimise overall production costs. However, every few hundred euros that can be saved is another few tonnes of grain that is yours at the end of the day, and not given over to someone else.

For example, if you save €3 an acre on an application across 200ac, that's 4t of grain at €150/t that's yours that wouldn't otherwise be.

The problem here, of course, is that if you know you are spending 10pc too much on your production, which 10pc is the one that's wasted?

Dr Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in north County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

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