Farm Ireland

Friday 20 July 2018

The 'Achilles heel' is poor grain prices

Wayne Smyth cutting 30 acres of winter barley at Slyguff, Co Carlow with some straw shredded. Photo: Roger Jones.
Wayne Smyth cutting 30 acres of winter barley at Slyguff, Co Carlow with some straw shredded. Photo: Roger Jones.

Richard Hackett

Just a few short years ago at this point in the season many combines would be hiding in the sheds still wearing their winter coat of dust and bird droppings.

This is not the case anymore on most farms. There has been a fairly seismic shift in cropping patterns in the last few years which is a welcome development.

Most enterprises have a range of crops now, and many of these crops are in the docket book at this point.

Winter barley and winter oats are wrapped up and a good bite has been taken out of the oilseed rape crops. So while it's fair to say the 'main harvest' has yet to be completed, plenty of fields are clean and the calculators are already being pressed into service.

These calculators are confirming that most crops have done all they can do to maximise returns, with high yields, low disease levels, good quality and good harvesting conditions again being the norm this year.

As per recent harvests, the Achilles heel is grain price, and the same calculators are also screaming out that no money is being made, and no money has been made for the last few years.

If these calculators could talk, I think they would ask why they are being pressed into service every year at this time to produce the same set of figures year in year out, only to be duly forgotten come land rent time and machine replacement time.

I wonder could calculators get depressed about being constantly ignored?

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The empty fields are providing an opportunity to get some field maintenance done. Heaps of lime are appearing at field gates awaiting spreading and stubble cultivation is being carried out. Small scale or even large scale field drainage is also being undertaken where appropriate.

Hedgerows can be trimmed back from August 31. Have a look at the mature trees on the farm, especially those along roadways. Many are getting very old and becoming very dangerous. Action may need to be taken. This is expensive, but not as expensive as the potential for accidents that fallen trees can bring.

Changes to the basic payment scheme, the increase in winter barley acreage and a welcome refocus on basic husbandry all point towards the increasing importance of rotation.

Winter barley is not a crop that can be grown on a continuous basis, there isn't enough firepower in the available grassweed herbicides for that.

Some break is therefore required and before returning back to winter wheat or spring barley, consider where a proper break crop can be used to best advantage. Winter oats are a good option if markets can be found before you plant.

The crop requires familiar husbandry and has an early 'slot-in' harvest time. The calculators haven't yet been asked to adjudicate on the new crop in town, field beans, so many are reluctant to commit to an increase in that crop just yet.

But as a break crop and for not interfering with the main harvest, beans, peas or lupins should be considered as part of most rotation programmes.

Oilseed rape is also a good option. The fortunes of this crop can fluctuate wildly, but as part of a crop mix, it also has a nice early 'slot in' harvest, completely different chemistry to attack problem weeds and the excellent follow-on first wheat slot it provides. It is always a crop to consider. Time is moving on however. The best rape crops are sown early, and if you can't get it sown in the next two weeks, forget it for this year.

Another potential break crop is the crop that dare not speak its name. The march towards a coast to coast dairy country has suffered a bit of a hiccup in recent times, and most cereal men are loath to give land over to grass production.

The biggest problem faced by cereal growers is soil fertility, while literally across the ditch, one of the major problems of a highly stocked dairy farm is too much 'fertility' in the soil.

It's blatantly obvious that before reseeding grassland, a few years of tillage will do a grass soil no end of good, while a few years ley will do wonders to worn tillage soils.

Everyone is in favour of getting access to the other persons land, but not so willing to give up their own land. I don't know what has to be done to knock heads together, but surely some kind of medium term land swap formula can be developed and promoted as a way to benefit both sectors?

Dr Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA.

Indo Farming