Farm Ireland

Monday 23 October 2017

Potato growers should hold the nerve against 'bottom feeders'


Potato producers find themselves selling at a tenth of the price they got last year.
Potato producers find themselves selling at a tenth of the price they got last year.

Richard Hackett

The recent cooling of temperatures brought to a close a very warm and compliant early winter for growers.

It's the first time in years for potato growers to have all fields cleared before December. Many even have subsequent cereal crops sown and established. Not many potato growers are smiling, however. Whether it's the warm weather dampening demand, or poor quality samples clogging the system or excess crop in poor storage looking for a quick home, there are plenty of excuses, but orders are hard to come by and sales appear particularly slow.

It's a bit early to start panicking, however. It's a long time before next year's earlies are harvested and a lot of things could happen in the meantime. The most important thing is to hold the nerve against 'bottom feeders' looking for a bargain.

The warm conditions have impacted on stubbles and generated a huge amount of volunteers and weeds in many fields. It's interesting to observe the overwhelmingly negative reaction to these weeds.

Volunteers and weeds are trapping nitrogen mineralised, or released, from the soil during the warm moist autumn.

This process is taking nitrogen from the soil that was unavailable to plants, and trapping the nitrogen in the green cover before it is leached from the soil as nitrate. As this green cover is ploughed down, soil processes will break it down to make the nitrogen available again to the following sown crop, where it is adding to the total nitrogen of that commercial crop. Green cover is a good thing and management should be employed to maximise the benefit of it.


The amount of nitrogen involved is put at between 50-120 kg N/ha. In old money, that's 1.5-3.5 bags of CAN per acre sitting out in the fields, so it's worth looking after this free resource.

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The first practice to maximise the benefit of this process is to minimise the amount of time between ploughing down the green cover and establishing the commercial crop.

Waiting until the spring to plough when the soil is warm and dry will also minimise the amount of leakage from this process. In short, do not winter plough unless it is absolutely necessary.

If early working of land is required, ploughing land now may also delay soil drying out in the spring in certain circumstances.

Those used to early planting or sowing will often only winter plough a portion of the required land for early planting.

Depending on conditions, sometimes land that is freshly ploughed is sometimes much quicker at coming in for cultivation. Therefore, winter ploughing only a portion will keep your options open.

As the season draws to a close, it is time to take stock, draw breadth and recharge the batteries. There are many pros and cons when comparing crop production with animal-based enterprises. But one clear advantage for crop production is that, when the weather closes in and winter temperatures drop, the only tending that is required is the sitting-room fire. Nollaig shona.

Dr Richard Hackett is an Agricultural consultant and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

Irish Independent