Last year was a year of big harvests. For Irish cereal growers, most of their horses romped home. Compared to 2010, which in itself was also a good year for the grower, 2011 acreage was up 7pc, yields were up 13pc and prices were up 7pc. The 2011 scene was similarly excellent for oilseed rape, peas and beans.
Why were yields so good in 2011? Can we expect the higher prices to continue?
These and other questions were addressed at last week's well-attended Teagasc national tillage conference in Kilkenny. If we had the answers to these questions we could bottle the 2011 template and plan for bumper harvests every year. It sure would be nice to hold onto the feel-good factor that was in Kilkenny.
Of course, all was not perfect in 2011. The poor market for straw was a negative. Maize yields were also disappointing. Low proteins in grain, particularly in malting barley, were the subject of a conference paper.
This was my first national tillage conference and getting definitive answers was probably expecting too much. Listening to the Teagasc experts I concluded that the 2011 yields owed more to divine, rather than man's, intervention.
The weather in 2011 saw a warm, dry spring followed by a cool, but sunny, summer. This combination of good seed beds, full germination and strong tillering led to high plant numbers and a full-leaf canopy. The cooler weather then led to a long period of grain fill for the high number of grains present. High ear numbers and full grains result in bumper yields.
Ritchie Hackett of Teagasc Oakpark discussed the challenge of raising the protein levels in malting barley. Teagasc's advice led to a raising of the nitrogen limit on malting barley from 135kg/ha last summer to a possible 175kg/ha. But even at these higher levels some Teagasc Oakpark plots still didn't reach the 9.5pc protein target. Splitting the nitrogen also helped but having high levels of organic matter in the soil seemed to give the best prospect for lifting grain protein.
Teagasc Oakpark scientist Steven Kildea said he was shocked at the high levels of septoria in fields of wheat in Cork last May and June. He said that rapid leaf growth in April was followed by a wet but early May which delayed the fungicide spray but promoted Septoria. He concluded that fresh leaves should be protected in advance of a fungal attack. Waiting until the disease is on the crop is too late.
About six years ago, resistance to triazole-based fungicides became a huge issue. The Oakpark research shows that the best control is achieved by the mixed ingredient Gleam or the newer SDHI-based fungicides such as Adexar and Aviator. No resistance against these has been found.
Looking ahead to the 2012 season, the conference was told that rising oil and fertiliser costs, plus slightly lower grain prices, will inevitably lead to reduced incomes for tillage farmers.
However, looking at the bigger picture the future for tillage farmers is bright. "In my 40 years of professional lifetime I see this as the most interesting and exciting time to be growing crops," keynote speaker Prof Ian Crute from AHDB in Britain told the meeting. "Twenty years of surplus food bred complacency, especially in the UK where food research was switched off. All that has now changed utterly and food security is now the issue across the world."
• Interest in share farming
A fascinating talk on share farming was given by Michael Hennessey of Teagasc and Ollie Whyte of Whyte Brothers in North Dublin. Through share-farming with the landowners, Ollie and his six brothers have grown to a 1,200 hectare tillage enterprise, plus they are signing up with three more owners in 2012.
Farmers are very interested in share-farming as a route to better farming for both the landowner and the grower, said Michael Hennessey. "A specimen share-farming agreement on the Teagasc website has attracted over 2,000 hits."
In the share-farming model, both parties farm the same land but run separate businesses. It can suit a range of individuals from the mixed livestock and tillage farmer, or a retiring farmer, to a landowner using a contractor. The grower brings the expertise and the extra buying power which comes from scale.
There must be full trust and total honesty between the landowner and the grower, Ollie Whyte told the meeting. The Whyte share-farming business is working well, according to all reports. In some cases, where a number of family members are involved in the one business, things work well until the spouses get involved. Apparently that is not an issue in the Whyte business even though all sons are married.
In any event share-farming can be carried out with individuals as well as families. Given the farm structures in Ireland share-farming must have a big future.