Farm Ireland

Sunday 25 February 2018

Some crops will cope with the freezing conditions but spuds not in the clear yet

Growers are sure that losses will not be as great this year due to higher overall yields and a lot less of the crop left to be harvested
Growers are sure that losses will not be as great this year due to higher overall yields and a lot less of the crop left to be harvested

Richard Hackett

Cereals would appear to have come off well during the recent cold snap. Established winter wheat and winter barley crops are now dormant and should be ok under the snow and ice.

Late-sown crops might benefit from the respite from the onslaught of slugs and crows. Crops will also benefit from the effect of the low temperatures on aphids and diseases.

Winter oats, especially spring varieties, are a worry as they have less frost tolerance than their other cereal cousins. Nevertheless, crops are well established and were rolled in most cases and snow protected the plants from the lowest temperatures in most instances. As the thaw starts, crops would be expected to look a bit worse for wear, but it will be well into the spring before any damage can be assessed.

Oilseed rape crops take a hammering from pigeons through the cold spell and will lose leaf area during the winter. However, many crops had excessive leaf coming into the winter and the priority for the autumn/ winter is good root establishment, not leaf establishment. Once growth starts, crops grazed to the growing point have an opportunity to branch out with a number of yield- producing stems per plant, so the net effect could be beneficial on oilseed rape crops.

There are many worries, however, with potato crops remaining in the ground. The vast majority of this year's crop is harvested and safely in storage (or on the export trail) but around 10pc of the crop remains in the ground.

While this is a low level, it's the last of the crop that's your own and with market prices still well below cost of production, every tonne of potatoes has a market and is needed to try and cover the losses sustained by the sector over the last three seasons. There are some mitigating factors that weren't there last season, such as good snow cover to protect crops and high yields that are there in the ground. There is an argument that it's preferable to lose a proportion of a high-yielding crop, so that the remaining tonnage is still viable, than lose the same proportion of a poor crop, so the remaining crop is not economically viable to harvest at all. But it's still a worrying time for growers with tonnage still to be harvested.

Winter vegetable crops are also suffering greatly from the cold snap, especially exposed crops such as cauliflowers, celery, late broccoli, brussels sprouts etc. It is traditionally a bit of a throw of the dice to grow these crops for winter harvesting in the first place. And perhaps growers and retailers alike have been lulled into a false sense of security over the past decade of mild wet winters to recognise the risks associated with growing these crops consistently through the winter.

Every risk must have a reward and the traditional high returns on the crops that were harvested compensated for the crops lost. What has changed fundamentally in the modern food supply chain is the lack of these high returns to the grower for any crop. This will present a conundrum in the long term. If prices don't increase or retailers do not share some of this risk, then growers will no longer take high risk for low returns. This will result in the majority of these fresh produce lines being sourced over the winter from areas of Europe such as Portugal and Spain, which are already struggling to meet European demand. This is not a sustainable solution.

Also Read

What is most worrying, however, is that the decisions on these important issues currently rest with the anonymous procurement managers of the major multiples. And realistically, these people are more intersted in profit levels and promotional prostpects than securing sustainable fresh produce supply lines for as long as possible through the season.

Dr Richard Hackett is a crop consultant and member of the ITCA. Email:

Irish Independent