Tillage - spread your risk with the three-crop system

A scene from the Cooney-Furlong Grain Company's depot at New Bawn in recent weeks, where 4,000t of grain was being delviered by local farmers on a daily basis
A scene from the Cooney-Furlong Grain Company's depot at New Bawn in recent weeks, where 4,000t of grain was being delviered by local farmers on a daily basis

Richard Hackett

The harvest is nearing completion but there still remains a fair amount of crops to be harvested, especially spring barley. We were very lucky with the harvest this year.

If the broken weather in the first week of August had been two weeks earlier or two weeks later, the harvest might have been an altogether different experience.The only real management tool to mitigate against weather events is to grow a number of crops with a spread of sowing dates and harvest dates.

While the use of the three-crop rule is being enforced on us via the Basic Payment Scheme, this aspect of the new scheme should be seen as an opportunity to spread the risk of production.

Before discussing the relative merits of specific crops, it's important to remember that high production costs coupled with poor grain prices means no crop is really profitable right now.

But given that the 2015 sowing season is already upon us, decisions are imminent.When selecting a range of crops to grow, don't depend too much on one year's results before making a decision, especially gossip of one year's results.

Winter barley has been flattered by excellent conditions during the critical grain fill in recent years. I don't think the long-term average yield is up with these levels.

Nevertheless, winter barley has reached a new yield level, not available 10 years ago. Early harvest and early sowing make this crop a definite component of a good rotation plan.

Winter wheat has had a good year. Given the high production costs, high yields are a necessity, but they are not always available. The high average yields may be because of so much second and continuous wheat slots being moved to winter barley, taking the lower yield slots out of the average.

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The lesson from the last two years is that in a high yield potential slot, winter wheat is still the only crop that can provide the ability to dilute costs per tonne so effectively.

Oilseed rape, however, has had two bad years. Sowing should be carried out now, but the mood music is not good for this crop. Prices have dropped and production costs are too high. There have been two years of disappointing yields and it's difficult to pinpoint why.

I wonder if it suffers from dry conditions during pod fill more than we realise. It seemed to perform well during some of the wetter summers, even holding onto the pods well during inclement harvests.

While a crop can't be continually grown at a loss, oilseed rape can be very beneficial to a rotation. Very early sowing gets work out of the way early, the use of completely different herbicide actives can have great effects on a weed spectrum and the harvest slots neatly between winter barley and the main spring barley/wheat harvest.

Organic manures should be used to reduce production costs and there is no reason why high yields and high prices won't return again at some stage.


Winter oats are also suffering from a couple of bad years. Price and difficulties finding buyers has been and continues to be an issue. As a break crop, it's not one of the best, especially where grass-weeds are an issue, as we currently have no real grass-weed control option for the crop.

Production costs, though, are not the highest, harvest is generally early and it does provide a good take-all break. It's a 'familiar' crop so combines and seeders don't need any specialist set up. Protein crops that are getting an extra payment such as field beans, peas or sweet lupins should make up a portion of big acreages.

There is plenty of time for spring sowing beans or peas, but set aside an area for these crops. These offer different herbicide actives for problem weeds and are excellent breaks. There is also a ready market for protein crops. However, keep acreages down as any more than a day's combining wouldn't be advised from a start off.

While waiting for the weather to clear to finish off the remaining harvest, sit down, preferably with your advisor, and go through each field and pencil in a crop for each field. Like all plans, they will be changed as events dictate. However, any plan is better than no plan.

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

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