Farm Ireland

Wednesday 17 January 2018

Growers braced for the worst as crops are exposed

Replay of last January as wet soils freeze hard

Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Cereal, potato and vegetable farmers were preparing for the worst this week as their crops were exposed to sub-zero temperatures.

As the snow recedes around the country, concerns are mounting that a range of vulnerable crops will become more exposed to the severe frosts that are hitting the country every night.

Up to now, snowfalls actually insulated crops such as winter oats, potatoes, carrots and beet from the night-time temperatures that fell as low as -16C in the midlands last week.

Met Éireann also reported temperatures as low as -10C in Dublin and -8C in Shannon Airport. Despite the record-low air temperatures, soil temperatures around the country remained above 0C all last week.

However, growers are getting worried because soils are well saturated and are dangerously close to the disastrous conditions that wiped out 27,000t of potatoes last January. Winter sown oats such as Barra were also seriously affected, while millions of euro of vegetable crops from carrots to brassicas were lost.

While crops look normal in the soil, severe freezing causes cell walls to rupture in high-moisture-content crops such as potatoes. These will then rot when they thaw out. Celery, cauliflower and carrots are also prone to damage from the cold.

Growers have been better prepared this year after getting caught out particularly badly last winter. Adverse harvesting conditions meant that up to 20pc of the potato crop was still in the ground in January. This year, it's believed that less than 10pc of the crop is still in the ground.

In addition, many vegetable growers have taken extra precautions to protect their crops. Philip Dreaper grows over 100ac of vegetables near Birr, Co Offaly, where some of the lowest air temperatures were recorded last week. Last year, he lost more than 60t of carrots. This year, he is taking no chances, with straw and plastic laid out over 16ac of carrots at a cost of up to €1,000/ac to protect it from the worst of the weather. "I think we'll be fairly OK provided temperatures don't drop any lower than we've already experienced," he said.

Also Read

Teagasc's crop specialist Jim O'Mahony said that the growing point for many winter sown oat crops was still under ground, which would also help protect them from frost damage. "It'll be very hard to know exactly what the damage has been until about 10 days after the thaw," he said. "Soil temperatures will need to drop to -5C before it causes a lot of damage to crops such as potatoes or beet."

Up to 10,000ha of oats, 2,000ha of beet, 2,000ha of potatoes and 4,000ha of vegetables could be affected if the cold spell persists or worsens, according to Mr O'Mahony.

Irish Independent