Farm Ireland

Thursday 19 April 2018

Our first task must be to address soil compaction

Despite a difficult sowing season and a cold start the 2013 crop produced decent yields
Despite a difficult sowing season and a cold start the 2013 crop produced decent yields

In my 34 years of walking, monitoring and managing tillage crops, I think it is fair to say that I have never come across two back-to-back seasons that have been such a contrast in terms of crop growth and income returns as 2012 and 2013.

The 2012 harvest will long be remembered for many reasons but principally because of the continuous and enormous quantities of rain that fell throughout the growing season, especially during the summer. This even extended into the start of the 2013 sowing season and significantly reduced the area planted to winter cereals.

In contrast, the 2013 harvest will be remembered for a growing season marked by a prolonged and extremely cold spell in early spring and a particularly dry and very high temperature summer, a period in June and July which was particularly relevant to grain fill.

The 2012 harvest produced poor yields and poor quality, while the 2013 harvest produced reasonable, though variable, yields but excellent quality.

From an income point of view, prices for the 2012 harvest were at a record high, with much forward selling failing to capitalise on the high prices. The 2013 harvest has seen very disappointing prices and little or no forward selling. A difference of €60/t between the two harvests is evident, despite the more superior quality of the 2013 crops.

Ireland is perceived to have the most suitable climate, despite generally poor summers, for cereals. Good, dry summers add to yields. The great summers of 1984 and 1995, which had outstanding yields, bear this out.

In 2013, the good summer appears to have helped yields despite what we expected from the late and cold start to the season. Obviously, a long, dry, warm grain-filling period is essential for good yields and once the moisture reserves are sufficient, as was noticeable again in 2013 in heavier ground, yields will benefit. Lighter, drier and sandier soils obviously suffer most in the dry summers due mainly to the poor moisture retentive properties of these soils.

What can we learn from our experience of the last two years? There is no doubt that the man above dictates, however, we should try to stack the cards more in our own favour.

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There are a few basics that should be taken on board immediately that will influence yields in 2014. The most fundamental and first challenge is to deal with soil compaction. The weather of 2013 will have helped to improve some soils, however, such was the level of compaction after the bad 2012 that many soils will continue to show compaction issues for a number of years.

The dry summer that has passed allowed growers to undertake quality sub-soiling. This should be completed at this stage. However, even at the risk of failing to plant winter crops, the benefit of sub-soiling cannot be overemphasised. The use of the oldest tool in your shed – a spade – will determine the depth required to sub-soil.

Seedbed conditions are the next most important issue to address. With modern equipment and enormous horsepower we believe we can beat seed beds into submission. But nothing will beat a fine, well prepared seed bed and sowing in good conditions. As the Irish saying goes: tús maith, leath na hoibre (a good start is half the work).

The third issue which has come back into play over the last few years is seedbed fertilisation. It took more than 50 years to build up phosphorus levels in soils to the level where P restrictions are now being imposed through the Nitrates regulations. Unfortunately, it will not take a fraction of the 50 years to deplete soils of phosphorus reserves, especially when high cereal yields are being achieved and the crop is regularly removing more phosphate than is being applied.

Good soil phosphate levels are the single most important element for good cereal root development. I believe the use of combine drills (ie including fertiliser with the seed) is now essential for low soil fertility land.

If these three aspects of crop establishment are dealt with satisfactorily, the potential for good yields is established.

Space does not permit me to expand on two other crucial areas – namely conacre costs and CAP reform. Suffice to say that anything more than €100/ac for cereal ground is sheer madness.

Similarly, the current proposals on CAP reform, as they stand – and as they appear to apply to existing tillage growers – will lead to a wipeout of the sector over the next five years.

Pat Minnock is a Carlow-based agricultural consultant and a member of the ACA and the ITCA. Email:

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