Farm Ireland

Friday 23 March 2018

Only 'top 10pc' of cereal growers will break even

Ninety per cent of cereal farmers are not breaking even on their crops.
Ninety per cent of cereal farmers are not breaking even on their crops.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Only the top 10pc of cereal farmers are likely to break even on their crops this year as prices weaken further.

Quotes for green barley this autumn have fallen to €118/t, or €10/t lower than last year.

However, cereal experts believe the record yields that cushioned the price drop last year will not be back for harvest 2016.

"Only the top 10pc of growers will make any money beyond their CAP payments on rented ground this year," said Goldcrop's variety manager, John Dunne.

"We had averages up around 4.5t/ac last year in winter barley, and even more the further up the country you went. That's what saved us last year."

The Cork native believes that temperatures that soared above 19°C during May this year made it too hot to create another record-breaking harvest.

"Winter barley still has a bit of time on its side, but plant numbers are down, there was a bit of water-logging earlier in the year, and there's a nice bit of disease around now.

"The heat in May actually thinned crops out, with a layer of smaller tillers down at the base of the crop. I've seen spring barley crops where the yield potential is down at 2.5t/ac," he said.

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Goldcrop's 2016-2017 variety catalogue shows that the gross margin is a loss in eight of the 11 main cereal crops grown on rented land this year.

"Those gross margins are based on really good target yields, such as 4.2t/ac for winter barley. It wasn't so long ago that a 4t/ac crop of winter barley was the talk of the parish, so these figures are based on very good performance," he said.

He also warned that farmers would need to change their cropping and seed sourcing practices if they were serious about curtailing the spread of the UK's biggest problem weed, blackgrass. It is resistant to most herbicides, and spreads rapidly once established in a field.

"I reckon that it is already on 5pc of farms, although probably only half of them realise that they have it.

"It's worse in the northern half of the country where there is a stronger tradition of buying seed, straw and machinery from the UK.

"If we do nothing, farmers are going to find that they will be forced to grow more break crops like oilseed rape (OSR) at the expense of more traditional crops like winter barley," said Mr Dunne.

He believes that winter barley growers are already looking to other crops such as beans and OSR to control new problem weeds such as blackgrass, sterile brome and canary grass.

However, he expects winter barley to hold its own in terms of overall area planted this year due to the ongoing drift away from spring crops such as spring barley.

"Spring crops used to be cheaper to grow, but the amount of spray inputs has crept up, while the yield potential hasn't grown at the same pace as the likes of winter barley.

"We're just going through a good phase now where there are great new winter barley varieties coming through that are beating the average 1-1.5pc annual increase in yield potential of new varieties. In addition, a 1pc increase on a 5t/ac winter cereal is a lot bigger than a 1pc increase on a 3t/ac spring crop."

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