Tillage farmer and contractor, Tony Bell turned to strip tillage ten years ago and says it’s the best thing he’s done on his farm. Among other crops, Tony grows beans on part of the 400 acres he farms near Balbriggan, North Dublin.
Both spring and winter beans have been making waves across the agricultural sector this year, having previously been regarded as a marginal crop.
“When I took over the farm it was mixed enterprise,” says Tony. “But I soon realised that there wasn’t any market for beef, so I sold out all the stock and decided to put my entire focus on tillage.”
After farming for a few years, Tony wanted to make the farm more efficient and profitable and that’s when he turned to strip tillage.
“By using strip tillage, only a narrow band of soil is tilled before planting seed. It’s quicker and you require less diesel to establish a crop. It removes the need to plough,” says Tony.
"The main benefit is that the soil structure in between strips is not disturbed. This increases worm population and soil fauna while also improving soil carbon and organic matter.”
Tony decided to buy a machine specifically designed for strip tillage.
“I bought a Czajkowski STK 300 machine in Poland. As I said, it eliminates the need to plough in preparation for sowing seed and ensures more efficient use of fertilizer, tilling strips straight through the field.
“The tank has a capacity of 2400 litres and is split 50/50 for fertilizer and seed. It rips up the ground, drilling straight in and blowing the seed and fertilizer in simultaneously. It has a GPS, so everything is done using satellite which makes for more accuracy in terms of fertilizer and bean placement.”
This modern addition to Tony’s farm is ideal for sowing beans, which could be seen as the underdog crop.
“There’s been a substantial uptake in the sowing of winter beans and beans in general this year and there’s a few reasons for it,” says Tony.
“There’s been a massive inflation in fertilizer prices this year which has left many farms struggling to continue to be viable. Beans are legumes and they fix their own nitrogen from the atmosphere. This means the farmer can dodge the fertilizer bullet by sowing beans because he will only need to put out his p’s and k’s. Winter beans in particular, get a greater root mass too.”
“Urea could be €40 a bag next year so farmers are looking at the prospect of spending €200 per acre on nitrogen, where beans can fix their own, eliminating that cost.”
Tony says another reason for the rising popularity of beans this year is because beans are a high protein crop and protein is in demand.
“Beans have a protein content of 29pc which is incredibly high. Soya, which has to be imported, has a protein content of 40pc. The industry is beginning to realise that if we can natively grow such a high protein crop, at home, with a vastly reduced fertilizer input, we are on to something.”
“Food miles are reduced as is carbon emissions and it’s a way of keeping our money circulating in our own economy. Beans are also genetic modification (GM) free and totally traceable.”
He says the uptake in the sowing of beans has been aided by the fact the European Union are now indentifying protein crops by paying a subsidy per acre.
He also says, given their sudden price hike, beans make for the ideal rotational crop.
“Another appealing aspect is that beans can be forward sold because we are now trading on the world market as opposed to just our own."
Tony’s contracting business is thriving in light of these recent developments. “I’ve 300 acres on my books at the moment. I would normally sow a lot of spring beans but this year I’m sowing a lot of winter beans too,” he says. “Drought is our single biggest issue here in North Dublin and this year has been quite dry.”
Along with beans, Tony is still growing maize on his own farm, which he bales into round bales and sells to local farmers, and wheat. He says that by using a strip tillage system, he is getting better results.
“Soil porosity is much better as is drainage. My soil quality has improved ten-fold since starting strip tillage and I’m saving on fertilizer too. My Czajkowski STK 300 machine cuts through the cover crop and because the soil structure is more intact, all the worm holes are left, and my pesticide use has dropped by 30pc.”
Tony says that by using strip tillage along with annual applications of of spent mushroom compost, he hopes for a prosperous year. “Beans are normally a marginal crop and come in around €180 per tonne. This year, however, they’re €230 per tonne, so there’s a massive difference, making them an appealing crop for many.”
Now is an ideal time to plant winter beans, which make a great break crop for tillage farmers, according to Dr Michael Hennessy, Teagasc’s head of crop knowledge transfer.
He says one of the keys to successful yield is picking the right field and ensuring good establishment.
“Soil is in great condition at the minute for sowing winter beans. Beans should be sown deep enough though, probably close to five inches, so that crows can’t get to them before the beans emerge.
“Winter beans are ideally sown from early November.”
However, Dr Hennessy says there’s an ongoing battle facing tillage farmers sowing beans.
“There’s a trade-off between sowing them early and sowing them late. Sowing beans early may give rise to increased disease pressure and sowing them late may mean you’re battling with crows until the beans are well established.”
“In general, beans don’t do well in drought either. This was particularly evident in 2018 when a lot of tillage farmers were down in yield. Winter beans can mitigate some risk however, as they are better rooted than spring beans and more resilient if there is drought from May to July.”
He says that if there is an increase in the sowing of beans this year, it’s mostly down to the hike in fertiliser costs.
“The inflation in fertiliser prices is prompting some farmers to look at alternative avenues. Beans don’t require nitrogen fertiliser which reduces the overall growing cost,” he says.
Dr Hennessy also says that Ireland is massively deficient in producing grain protein, which beans are rich in.
“We import so much of our grain protein, while we could be growing it at home,” he says. “There’s a recognition by the Department of Agriculture and in general, that we need to plant more protein and reduce our reliance on imported feedstuffs.”
He says spring and winter beans mostly go for animal feed.
“Beans are ideal in coarse ration for sheep and cattle, mainly because of their protein content. They are also a good break crop for any tillage farmer.”