Patrick J Phelan: Underutilised land must be unlocked

Cereal sector should be allowed reach its potential

Giant crop: Owen Jordan, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, with his 140cm tall Benica maize crop
that was sown in April under punched plastic. It got 3,000gal/ac slurry and 18:6:12, a Calaris
and Stopm herbicide
Giant crop: Owen Jordan, Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, with his 140cm tall Benica maize crop that was sown in April under punched plastic. It got 3,000gal/ac slurry and 18:6:12, a Calaris and Stopm herbicide

Patrick J Phelan

The future potential of the cereal sector is dependent on the development and evaluation of new varieties and fungicide trials.

Over the past two weeks, there have been a series of open days hosted by the organisations driving this research – Seedtech, Drummonds, Teagasc Oakpark and the Department of Agriculture. This information will help overcome income risk at farm level due to price fluctuations. However, we still have one major limitation which must be overcome – land availability.

It is very frustrating to see top or even average-quality land underutilised. This land is needed by young farmers who want to get a start and by established farmers who have the capacity to do more work.

In 1972, An Foras Taluntais published The Potential of Irish Land for Livestock Production. It stated that, excluding 280,000ha of tillage, Ireland had a stock-carrying potential of 8m livestock units with an input of 48kg/ha of nitrogen and 9.7m livestock units at 230kg/ha.

The Central Statistics Office estimated that in June 2012, Irish agriculture consisted of a total of 297,400ha of cereals and 5.8m livestock units (LU).

This is almost identical to what we had in 1972, so what is going wrong?

An Foras Taluntais identified 2.7m hectares of dry mineral soil with a stocking potential of 2.7LU/ha. I suspect that much of this would now benefit from tillage production for a few years before reseeding.

It also identified a further 670,000ha of wet mineral soils with a stocking-rate capacity of 1.73-2.12 LU/ha, and 1.53m hectares of Class B land with a stocking potential of 1.43LU/ha.

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Our current stocking rate of 1.4LU/ha does not even equal the potential of the Class B land.

Since 1972, we have seen huge investment in farm facilities and land improvement and substantial development in production techniques.

Our tillage farmers are achieving some of the top yields in the world but nationally we are totally underutilising most of our land.

The average nitrogen fertiliser usage on cattle farms is only 28kg/ha. Dairy farms are better at 112kg/ha, but still a long way off their full potential.

Most of our grassland is permanent pasture and large tracts have not been reseeded in living memory. REPS was blamed by many in the past for low levels of production and locking land into five-year contracts.

This year, in anticipation of the new Single Payment Scheme (SPS), some landowners took back land to farm themselves and many of them plan to continue to hold onto their land into the future. What will that do for Irish production?

People who farm land well can be justifiably proud of doing a good job. Landowners, who for whatever reason cannot achieve the same standard themselves, should be equally proud of adopting solutions which will allow their land to meet its potential. Most of the reasons for underutilisation can be addressed if we adopt structures and approaches that are already in place, such as:

1.Persons over 40 can lease out land without incurring a tax liability.

2.Landowners can enter share farming agreements or partnerships that get someone else to do the work and share the profits.

3.Landowners can rent out or lease out part of their farm to generate a guaranteed income and farm the remainder for their farm more intensively to maintain existing stock numbers. An extra bag of nitrogen on the remainder of the land may often be enough.

4.Tackle the real basic issues – soil fertility and reseeding. It is very hard to justify farming good-quality land if adequate lime and base fertiliser is not utilised. Is a landowner using less than 48kg/ha of nitrogen on good-quality land really farming?

5.Some situations merit land being rented out under short-term rental agreements which allow the landowner to claim his single payment and allow someone else to utilise it outside the core SPS periods.

It is in everyone's interest to get away from our traditional 11-month system and put in place agreements that will benefit the land, landowner, active farmer and the country. Any farmer with underutilised good-quality land will have no problem in getting it back into top production shape if they are willing to take this advice.

Patrick J. Phelan is a member of ACA and ITCA and may be contacted at

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