Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

Agri leaders are wrong to ignore importance of the arable sector

John Shirley

'One more sow, one more cow, one more acre under the plough,' this was the challenge to Irish farmers from agriculture minister James Dillon almost 60 years ago. Then, as now, Ireland was in economic hardship.

Food Harvest 2020 is the modern version of the Dillon challenge to the agri sector. Only this time around the architects of Food Harvest 2020 report (FH 2020) have almost ignored the plough.

FH 2020 contains ambitious expansion targets for dairying, for beef and for pigs, but tillage seems to get the sunset industry brush off with an exhortation to Teagasc "to undertake research into low input more efficient and more environmentally production systems".

Bottom line, the arable sector is not rated by the agri leaders in Ireland. Otherwise would we have allowed the sugar industry to disappear?

Even within Teagasc, the crops section has been subsumed under the Johnstown Castle environment umbrella.

The reality is that there is more to Irish farming than grass. There is a competent tillage sector that will thrive in a premium decoupled Europe freed of the yolk of set-aside.

Even in a period of depressed prices the Teagasc National Farm Surveys showed incomes from tillage as consistently next best to dairying.

Responding to improved prices and to signs that the world food demand-supply balance is tipping in their favour, tillage farmers themselves are even fearful of too much growth in the sector.

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"The whole of Europe will be put under the plough next year," said a farmer to me after he had forward sold his 2012 oilseed rape crop for over €400/t.

The fact that he has since harvested more than 2/t from this year's oilseed rape adds to his conviction that there will be a swing to tillage.

For an insider's informed view of the Irish arable sector, I spoke with Dr Jimmy Burke, the former head of crop research at Teagasc Oakpark for the past decade, and recently appointed as professor of crop science at UCD. In reintroducing this post at least UCD has acknowledged the importance and potential of arable farming in Ireland.

In Dr Burke I found an informed scientist, full of positivity but with a few warnings along the way:

•Of all Irish farmers, tillage operators have the highest uptake of technology, a fact confirmed by a study carried out by Prof Alan Matthews in TCD.

•Unlike other sectors, tillage has a home market for feed-grains and a vast home market for energy crops but this latter sector is not being well managed. While Government has set bioenergy targets there has not been an accompanying strategy to meet these targets. Ironically, Government bioenergy targets are likely to be met by imports rather than tapping the potential within the country.

•Ireland's long cool summers enable us to grow the highest wheat yields in the world. See figure 1 (below). This is partly offset by the high cost of cereal inputs in Ireland.

•Since the 1950s, Irish cereal yields have improved by about 2pc a year. The technology is there to enable this yield growth to continue. Straw can be grown shorter and stronger to carry the higher yield but unless the EU changes its approach to biotechnology and GM, wheat yields will be surpassed by corn maize yield over the next couple of decades.

•Terminating the sugar industry was a mistake. Ireland had an efficient sugar beet processing industry and Irish growers were competitive. In the 10 years pre-closure, Oakpark measured washed beet yields on farm averaging 74t per hectare. Sugar imports now cost €130m a year. In addition, under last year's Biofuel Obligation Scheme, Ireland has an annual need for about 200m litres of biofuel such as bio-ethanol at present. This will increase to 500m litres by 2020. Only a very small fraction of this demand is currently produced domestically, virtually all the remainder is imported. The total current value of these two imports is more than €250m and will rise to over €400m by 2020. This is an opportunity that this country cannot ignore. Building a new plant to process about 20,000ha of sugar beet into sugar and ethanol is a viable proposition. Moves are afoot to make this happen. It should be centred among the tillage farms in the South East.

•Just like the tillage sector, Irish crop research has boxed above its weight. Teagasc Oakpark has a world class biotechnology and plant breeding facility which has delivered important new varieties of clover, grass and potatoes. Strategic alliances with other plant breeders across the globe promise exciting new developments in cereal breeding as well. Wheat is a genetically diverse crop with known genotype environmental interaction that can be exploited for disease resistance, for more efficient uptake of nutrients and water and for efficient use of nitrogen. Marker assisted selection could bring quite fast results, especially on resistance to disease such as Septoria.

•Environmental legislation from the EU poses a major threat to Irish cereal growing which is more dependent on fungicides than continental Europe. The EU taxpayer is willing to support the Single Farm Payment in return for greener, more diverse farming. Ireland with its fields and hedge structure and crop rotation already has this diversity and we should promote this asset.

•GM technology can deliver on pest and herbicide resistance, it can enhance the uptake of nutrients or increase the plant's tolerance to stress such as heat, drought, acidity, alkalinity, nutrients, salinity etc. But Europe needs to accept the science of its own policing and licensing bodies if it wants to benefit from the biotechnology that is in the pipeline. If this is allowed there is a basis for innovation led agriculture in Europe of which Irish farmers can be key participants.

In addition to being fast learners of the latest technology on crop inputs, Irish tillage farmers and contractors have also adopted the latest techniques and machinery. Overnight their scale could be doubled without the workload and effort that would be called for in dairying.

The FH2020 targets for beef have been revisited. I believe that the potential for Irish arable farming for 2020 should also be revised.

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