Farm Ireland

Monday 19 March 2018

Tillage... It's decision time for potato growers

Ploughmen: Pictured at the 60th annual ploughing match recently at Cahermore Co Cork were local lads Sean Hurley, Owen Santry, Sean Hayes and Patrick Hurley. Photo: Denis Boyle.
Ploughmen: Pictured at the 60th annual ploughing match recently at Cahermore Co Cork were local lads Sean Hurley, Owen Santry, Sean Hayes and Patrick Hurley. Photo: Denis Boyle.

Richard Hackett

It is at this time of year that adherence to dates can prove crucial on a tillage farm. We are past the first major date, where you can now spread organic manures or move organic manures to the field for spreading.

Spreading of organic ma-nures is not just subject to dates, it is also subject to prevailing conditions. This is just as well. Trying to negotiate wet fields with heavy loads of manure or slurry is a recipe for causing severe compaction.

Another date that has just past is for the application of Kerb, or other propyzamide based herbicide for use on oilseed rape. Propyzamide requires cold conditions to work most effectively, and must be applied before January 31 in the year of application.

Some crops are thick enough that a herbicide is not warranted - they will compete against any newly emergent weeds in the spring. Most crops however are too open to smother out weeds. Application of a herbicide therefore, is well advised. There are still some options to consider if a pre-emergent or pre-January 31 application hasn't been made. With the weather as it is, applications will probably not be made for a while, so the best solution is to hold out until growth begins before deciding.

Another date to mark on the calendar is March 1 - the final date for cutting hedges. Many hedges, especially in tillage fields, have become very overgrown to the point that they serve no purpose, except to act as a roosting point for crows and pigeons.

The best solution for these hedges is to take a tractor-mounted saw-blade to them, and cut them to a 1.4-1.6m height. Initially it will look like a butchering, but the rate of recovery to a stock-proof condition can be amazing.

Cutting back a hedge can have a hugely positive effect on the rate that a field dries out, and there are other positive effects, such as disease and pest management, improved drainage, more even crop ripening, a barrier from roaming livestock, and it also looks better.

There are many rules and regulations surrounding hedge removal, and there are also rules and regulations surrounding burning of branches.

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Don't let that put you off however. Hedgerow maintenance can be a very rewarding task while waiting for the spring work to commence.

There might not be a defined date, but there are imminent decisions to be made on every potato-producing farm in the next few weeks. Many have already taken the decision to cease production, and others are only continuing as they can't sell the machinery, because no one will buy it.

The acreage of potatoes in the ground last year was perhaps the lowest area ever planted in modern times. So why are prices still so low?

It is true that yields were high and most crops were harvested in good conditions. The average wasn't that high however, and there are still some potatoes in the ground.

When you link these facts to current prices, it can only be concluded that there are some in the trade who are keeping the ferries busy.

However, decisions have to be made now and the only prudent decision that a grower can take is to reduce planted acreage further.

This won't restore some balance of production, since the acreage is already below sustainable levels. The reason acreage will drop further is that each individual grower is deciding that the less you grow, the less money you are likely to lose.

The net result will be that in order to meet 2015/2016 demand, merchants and supermarkets are going to be dependent on the roulette wheel hitting 'three-in-a-row' of an excellent growing season followed by excellent harvest conditions, in addition to the well-worn path of sourcing from Britain.

Given the way the euro is moving against sterling, that mightn't be as fruitful a venture as it usually is.

To my mind there are a very few weeks open now for merchants to take action and try to tie down solid contracts with reputable growers to avoid the above scenarios. Let's hope they take the opportunity.

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


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