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Independent.ie

Thursday 21 September 2017

Tillage - We have to cut the costs that are within our control

Grain yield is weather dependent
Grain yield is weather dependent

Richard Hackett

Now that 2017 is here, thoughts can return again to the convoluted future projections for the tillage sector.

Winter cereal acreage is up, despite all projections on future profitability so the key issue now is how to maximise returns from these crops next harvest.

The three most important factors involved in profitable crop production are price of grain, tonnage produced and cost of production.

While there are links between the three, by and large in an Irish context these factors are fairly independent of each other. In general terms, price is determined externally. Grain yield is weather dependent and production costs are very loosely in the control of the grower

The first factor to look at is price. The experts are agreed on one point - prices are unlikely to improve in the short to medium term. There are many caveats around these predictions.

We may get a drought in some place, or a flood in another.

Demand may be higher than predicted and the Russians might be telling porkies about their production stats.

Maybe price predictors are giving negative outlooks to support their own positions.

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The caveats are endless but from a planning angle, any prediction that is based on a price higher than was achieved last harvest can only be described as being optimistic.

The second most important factor to consider is yield. Again we can be overly optimistic in our prediction that yields will be very good next year, but it has to be said that some of the omens look good on this front.

Winter cereals

Winter cereals to date look excellent. They don't generally follow the rule of 'well sown, half grown' as much as spring cereals do, but to date crops look to have as much potential as they could possibly have at this time of the year.

Other factors are coming into play here as well which I believe are beginning to bear fruit.

Changes to regulations such as the 'enforcement' of the three-crop rule, the protein crop payments, land leasing schemes, removal of poorer parcels to 'wild bird cover' or 'environmental fallow' are affecting production levels.

More and more farms are growing longer rotations, break crops are becoming more commonplace, farmers are becoming wiser to the benefits of organic manures on tillage land.

While these factors may not immediately impact on the topline yield of the best field on a farm, these factors taken together may well even-out the average of the farm in total. By filling in the troughs and maintaining the peaks, the average can move up.

However, before we get too carried away, all else being equal, grain yield is predominantly determined by weather conditions which occur during grain fill.

That's the weather next June and July to you and me. Cool bright weather is what the doctor orders, think 2015, and how that turned out.

Murky wet weather is a disaster at this time, think 2012. Excessively hot weather is not great either, think 2016 for that.

So while we can do a lot to protect yield in modern crop production, we still can't create conditions for excellent barnstormer yields. One area that many farmers consider sacrosanct is production costs.

It is true that production costs in Ireland are high and have to be high to protect the yield potential we have. It is also true that some crops are getting far too much money spent on them, costs that are not recovered in terms of higher yield.

Robust fungicide programmes are required, but it is possible to overplay this, especially early in the season. Crops respond to micro- nutrient applications only if there is a micronutrient deficiency present.

Liquid feeds can often bring back life to a struggling crop in distress, but are unlikely to have any effect on a crop that is in good condition and already thriving.

Applications of manures over and above crop requirements will not increase yields and only increase the risk of lodging.

Crop production is an expensive business, but when we have so little control of the outcomes, we have to take every opportunity we have to minimise the spend necessary to achieve these outcomes.

Richard Hackett is an Agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

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