The EARLY days of the new year are a good time to consider alternatives to the usual crops. The Bioenergy Scheme for miscanthus and willow will close for applications on January 18 and there is limited availability of funding for this year.
The Department of Agriculture's website has full details of the scheme but all proposed planting must receive prior written pre-planting approval from the Department.
A few details should be noted. Applications will be prioritised according to the existing farming system, the suitability of the site and, especially, evidence of linkages with end-users to use the biomass crop as a source of bioenergy. In the current climate, a suitable market with a guaranteed return is essential.
There are a number of options available to growers but each of them has different advantages and these should be studied and agreed before signing any contract.
Good establishment of these crops is the very basic requirement for the successful draw down of grant aid. Take time to decide and look for examples of existing crops and their management and returns to date. Remember that these crops have been around for a few years now and, while many mistakes have been made in the past, most providers are now well aware of the difficulties.
Their experience and that of their growers should help to improve your returns from these crops over and above the returns achieved by some of the earlier pioneer growers. Remember, also, that once planting takes place you are in for a minimum of 10 years. So the contract you agree is vital and seek professional advice if in doubt.
The Department grant aid consists of a once-off capital grant, based on a percentage of approved establishment costs. These are grant aided up to 50pc, subject to a maximum grant of €1,300/ha and are based on invoices and receipts.
Aid will be paid in two instalments. A maximum of 75pc of the 'first instalment' grant becomes available following establishment of the crop. A maximum of 25pc of the 'second instalment' grant becomes available in the year after payment of the first instalment, provided the applicant has adequately maintained and managed the crop.
Applications must be made using the Bioenergy Scheme (BES) application form for pre-planting approval. Applicants must declare the land parcels (land parcel identification number/LPIS number) and the eligible net area of each land parcel in respect of each plot where willow and miscanthus is being planted.
Applicants must also ensure that all land areas planted to willow and miscanthus are declared on their 2012 Single Payment Scheme (SPS) application form. Both the LPIS number and the number of hectares on the BES form must match the SPS application.
Under REPS, the maximum area allowed for either of these crops is 10ha and the two crops must not be grown on habitats identified under Measure 4 or Natura 2000/NHA sites. An uncultivated margin of four metres must be left. Biomass crops must not be grown on a LPIS parcel on which an action under the Agri-Environment Options Schemes is being delivered.
This is also the time of the year to ensure that forecasted frost will not have damaging effects on your machinery. Tractors must have adequate anti-freeze in the cooling system. Batteries should be fully charged to cope with the extra demands of starting in freezing conditions.
In sprayers, all pumps, pipes, hoses and filters should be fully drained and cleaned and pressure gauges should be stored away from frost.
When it comes to storage fodder crops, outdoor clamps of fodder beet should be covered with straw and an old silage cover used to prevent freezing. Frosted beet contains oxalic acid, which can be poisonous if consumed in large quantities.
The Health and Safety Authority has started another campaign highlighting the dangers that can occur in farming. The farmer in this campaign is well known to me and he freely admits his accident could have been avoided. Excessive risks are being taken, especially when the pressure is on to complete a task.
This risk increases during severe weather conditions. Again, over the Christmas, a fall from a roof led to another death leaving another family grieving. Use grit generously on farmyards and walkways -- it is freely available on most farms -- as most injuries result from slips and falls.
Herd out-wintered livestock during daylight hours and be back before nightfall. Keep away from hazardous areas and rough terrain. Always carry a mobile phone. If rigging up additional lamps and heaters, use the correct wiring and ensure these are protected by a 30 milliamp residual current device on the switch or fuse board to prevent electric shocks.
Pat Minnock is the Carlow-based president of the Agricultural Consultants Association (ACA) and a member of the ITCA. www.minnockagri.ie