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Sunday 4 December 2016

Tillage sums don't add up this year

Pat Minnock

Published 02/03/2016 | 02:30

Vincent Hughes from Ballinkillen, Co Carlow took advantage of the recent dry spell to pull fodder beet for farmer Paddy Brennan. Roger Jones.
Vincent Hughes from Ballinkillen, Co Carlow took advantage of the recent dry spell to pull fodder beet for farmer Paddy Brennan. Roger Jones.

Most winter crops look very well for this time of the year however the potential for problems exists. Crops are advanced but beginning to show signs of hunger.

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At the first opportunity these crops will need fertiliser but this should not be at the expense of creating major wheel tracks/rutting which will remain for the rest of the season. I would not be overly concerned with yellowing in winter barley crops this early as the crop continues to lay down grain sites while dormant. A little fertiliser will no doubt help the crop to remain greener and will allow more tillers to survive.

However, the development of a greater number of grain sites will help maintain yield potential. After a very mild and wet winter, disease levels in crops is relatively high. This is particularly evident in winter barley and oil seed rape.

There is no cause for concern just yet however should weather conditions improve and growing conditions change action may be needed sooner rather than later.

Some barley crops are up to growth stage 30 while wheat crops are from 20 to 25. Winter oats is at stem extension, growth stage 30, and will be ready for growth regulation as soon as weather conditions improve and allow.

To reduce costs this spring you must consider the use of Urea, spreading widths may be a problem depending on your tramlines. CAN works out at approximately €1 per kg of N, while this works out at 70 cent in Urea. Therefore, for winter barley receiving 180 kgs of N switching to urea can save €52 per hectare over CAN.

No spring work was evident until last week when a few cold dry days allowed some field work to start. It is likely to be some time yet before significant levels of spring work, particularly sowing, gets under way. Some winter crops that have not received a herbicide could be treated immediately.

Winter barley with grass weeds present should be sprayed with IPU and DFF as there are no chemical options for grass control later.

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At this stage it is unlikely to be an early spring and all growers should question their plans considering the price predictions for next harvest. Current markets would indicate prices around €120 for green barley.

A yield of 1.8 t/ac is required just to cover input costs (Teagasc) alone at this price. With crazy conacre prices being paid again this spring, I again wonder how growers do their maths.

Presumably there are no growers who believe that this spring barley will sow itself, manage itself and harvest itself.

If you consider reasonable machinery costs of €160/ac (Teagasc), this requires a further 1.3 tonnes to cover these costs. These two items alone require 3.1t to break even at €120/t. This does not allow for fixed costs, interest, transport, return on investment or conacre.

A few growers may have machinery with no loans or HP remaining therefore a cost for machinery may not be factored in, however, do you cost your own time? Are you happy to work for no return?

Many of the prices being offered for conacre in the Leinster region are absolutely mind boggling and will require another three tonnes just to break even. Yields of six tonnes per acre of spring barley are unheard of and not yet possible.

No matter what calculator you use this can only add up to a major loss in 2016. You are, at best, eating into your Basic Farm Payment.

Furthermore, fertility levels in conacre are generally very low. A report from Teagasc on soil sample analyses in 2015 shows that only 15pc of tillage soils have optimum soil pH, P and K levels.

Approximately half of tillage soils are at index 1 and 2 for P and K. Applying fertiliser to low pH soils is inefficient and costly. Do farmers taking expensive conacre even consider soil analysis before offering these fantastic prices for land?

As previously advised by myself and several of my colleagues this is the year to consider leaving land fallow or, better still, it is an opportunity to try to improve your land by planting cover crops.

You will not lose out anything this season income wise, you will improve the quality of your soil and future yield potential AND you will have free time to devote to other more worthwhile activities. Your family may be much more thankful for this also.

You may actually find that you have time to do all those things that you always wished you could do.

Leaving land fallow or sowing to a cover crop will also allow the application of organic manures during the season which will only improve soil quality and the potential for higher yields in the future.

Remember the machinery that you own will not depreciate as much if left idle and left under cover for the season. Continuing to grow crops in the current climate is a recipe for building up large debts from which it may be very difficult to recover.

Stepping back even for this season will allow you to take stock of your farming situation without eating into you Basic Farm Payment.

If you have more time on your hands it will also allow you to devote time to seeking off farm work or maybe helping your neighbours.

If you come to some agreement with your neighbouring growers to help out, you might not actually get paid for this, but you can always enjoy the distinct possibility that other than time this won't cost you any money compared to if you are farming yourself.

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

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