Farm Ireland

Wednesday 23 January 2019

A strategic spring wheat policy can reduce our reliance on imported grains

Richard Hackett

With the longer days and, hopefully, slightly warmer temperatures it's rapidly getting towards time to head back to the fields.

Given the poor weather we have endured since last July, in many cases there is a lot of work to get through and great enthusiasm about finally getting out of the yard to get some 'real work' done.

Given the weather and the negative sentiment, it is surprising how much winter cereals were actually sown last autumn. In general, these have come through the winter in overall very good nick.

However there are still a lot of empty fields awaiting spring cropping and decisions are imminent.

The introduction of the protein payment a number of years ago has yet again demonstrated the willingness of farmers to react positively to policy measures.


The acreage of beans has increased and compounders have modified their facilities to handle this increased area.

More acres stimulate more agronomic research, more variety evaluation and more attention to detail. The long-term outlook for this crop is now secure.

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Spring rape is never a safe bet as too much of the production cycle is not controllable.

But the price remains attractive and the crop opens up a good rotation slot. As a crop choice, it has to be considered.

A longer term bet is spring oats in the rotation slot. Yields can be erratic, the production cycle is long which can delay harvest in some years, straw can be hard to save and oats can be a hard sell in the open market.

However, it appears there are new and exciting varieties in the pipeline that finally have the dual characteristics of quality and quantity.

In the search for a viable and sustainable Irish compound feed, oats has to be a valuable ingredient as it brings digestible fibre and lower processing costs to the mix.

The long-term outlook for oats is good, but only if it's promoted.

There is a crop that has the potential to meet a wide range of long-term objectives, but is currently a poor relation in terms of development.

It's not too long ago that spring wheat used to go head-to-head with winter wheat in terms of profitability: a slight reduction in yield could be compensated for with a higher quality bonus.

Nowadays, the quality bonus is gone, but more importantly, the crop just won't yield. Approximately 10t/ha used to be a realistic target for spring wheat in the right slot - sown in early spring after beet or potatoes.

In recent years, though, hitting 7t/ha is a struggle. It won't tiller, the grain fill period waits until the day lengths have disappeared and the weather has broken. This means the harvest turns into a salvage operation of green grain, greener straw and burning combine belts.

Something seems to have gone wrong with the crop, and strategically, this has to be addressed.

If we are to maximise the use of organic manures in crop production being produced from our ever increasing livestock populations, we need a nutrient-hungry spring crop to complement nutrient-hungry winter crops to avoid excessive storage requirements.

Spring wheat can meet that requirement.

If the incessant march of septoria resistance wreaks its ultimate revenge on winter wheat production or the cost of septoria control renders the crop unviable long before disease itself does the damage, spring wheat could be called upon to reclaim its former mantle of the ultimate starch producer.

And if Brexit wreaks its worst case havoc, we could quite easily find ourselves in a French Revolution scenario of having no bread to feed ourselves.

Milling wheat

Currently, not only do we not grow our own wheat for our own bread requirements, we don't even mill our own flour to feed ourselves in this country. It's practically all imported from the UK. In 2019, this could suddenly look quite a foolish policy.

Spring wheat is the best option we have for quality milling wheat production.

It's not too long ago that winter barley was the poor relation in terms of crop output. It was the preserve of the large grower with insufficient combine capacity.

The industry responded, varieties advanced, production techniques were improved and winter barley has become the shining light of the sector. The same needs to be done with spring wheat.

We don't often talk of a cereal crop in Ireland as a 'strategic crop', but with the range of potential risks this country is currently exposed to, a strategic crop approach is something we badly need.

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

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