Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Mixed-type farms can boost efficiency and cut costs -- plus spark your interest

John Shirley

We live on a main road in the south east and almost every day we see big loads of straw heading north and west. When transport costs are added, this straw will not be cheap.

Margins in today's farming are so tight that added costs, such as transport and middle handlers, are a luxury that cannot be afforded. In recent decades, the trend has been towards specialisation, but will mixed self-sufficient-style farming make a comeback? There are also efficiencies in complementary enterprises on the same farm. Tillage and livestock can dovetail well on the one site.

In a similar vein, the income in beef and sheep cannot carry a spate of movements through marts. When animals and products are moved, extra cost is incurred. I'm certainly not saying that marts should be closed. Marts deliver an essential farming service, but let's be aware that all costs eventually come from the primary producer's pocket.

I know that not every Irish farm is suited to arable crops and tillage, but many all-grassland farms could carry some tillage as well.

Let me look at some of the in-built efficiencies in more mixed-type farming.

Positives for livestock

  • Straw and cereals are available at first cost. Crimping and proprionic additives now allow for long-term, on-farm, low-labour cereal storage without the vermin threat.
  • Having some of the land in arable crops facilitates extra stock-carrying capacity under the Nitrates Directive.
  • A root crop, such as fodder beet, provides a high carrying capacity per unit of land.
  • Fresh reseeds give extra grass and reduced threat from parasites. This boosts livestock performance, especially lambs.
  • Tillage in the rotation makes it easier to control weeds, such as thistles, docks, ragworth, nettles, etc.
  • More stock can be outwintered on catch crops.

Positives for tillage

  • Grass breaks support a recovery in soil organic matter and fertility.
  • Dung and slurry recycled on-farm cuts fertiliser cost and boosts fertility.
  • It also improves cash flow.


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Of course, there are also problems with mixed farming, such as the high labour content, dependence on contractors, and poor use of specialised machinery and equipment.

Such an 'Old McDonald' mixed-type farm will never be tested by the likes of Teagasc. There is no blueprint farm for farmers to follow, but I have seen and still see some family farms making a tight living from relatively small acreages in mixed-type farming. I haven't seen their accounts, but I can see that they are prepared to graft and that there is no waste in the system.

Dairying can be an exception to my theory on mixed farming. The margins from milk are potentially so much higher than any other enterprise that diluting the business does not make sense. But many dairy farmers have fragmented farms, which can suit complementary cropping.

Farmers producing Italian-quality exportable weanlings can continue to specialise. A lot of these herds are on land that is not suited to the plough.

The option of ad-lib finishing on concentrates has given an added dimension to the farmer with the weanling that fails to make the export market.

Rather than take a poor price in the autumn, I see suckler farmers putting young bulls on an ad-lib ration for up to five months and selling directly for slaughter. The margin can be variable but it gives an extra margin and can be easily done in slatted pens.

Farmers in this area are testing a new crop this year, which is based on combined barley and peas. This can be harvested as arable silage, crimped grain or dried grain. The theory is that the mix will require less fertiliser or fungicide, thus lowering cost. The harvested crop will be already balanced for protein content. The subsequent cereal crop will benefit as well.

Tillage farming is on such a tight margin that change is needed. There is some move towards placing pig finishing units in tillage areas. This makes total sense in terms of having grain at first cost and recycling slurry at top efficiency. Also, the legislation of soil organic matter will push cereal farming back towards rotations, which include grass.

Even if all of the production is not done on one farm, surely there is scope for neighbouring farms to come to an arrangement for inter-farm trading that entails minimal extra transport and labour costs. This, too, can give a boost to efficiency.

If nothing else, having more than one enterprise adds variety and interest to your farming.

Irish Independent