Extraordinary times call for urgent action in tillage sector


Poor weather, higher input costs, and price volatility continue to hammer the tillage sector
Poor weather, higher input costs, and price volatility continue to hammer the tillage sector
Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan. Photo: Steve Humphreys
PJ Phelan

PJ Phelan

Dairy farmers normally achieve 'Magic Day' in early April, but this year some are still buying in fodder and all are concerned as to how to manage grass this year and to have enough fodder for this winter.

Most if not all of the tillage farmer's magic days - the latest days for sowing crops - are well past. Work for spring crop sowing is at least four weeks, and in some case eight weeks behind normal. Granted, many farmers normally finish off sowing in the last few days of April but most have never experienced starting after mid-April.

Traditionally late sown crops are sown into heavy soils, which have good moisture retention, and yields can be every bit as good as earlier sown crops. We now still have many lighter soils which have not been sown.

Careful consideration must go into everything we do as any mistakes made with sowing will be considerably aggravated by late sowing. We know:

1. It is now too late to sow spring wheat, oats or beans and late - very late - for everything else.

2. Our subsoils are still wet so that even when soils are "fit" in the top few inches, machinery will compact subsoils. Use wide tyres, lowest permissible tyre pressures, reduce weights - you don't have to fill the spreader - mind headlands and keep traffic to a minimum.

3. Heavy rainfall after sowing or overtilled soils followed by drying conditions can cause soil capping.

4. Wet areas of some fields will not be fit to sow this year - stay out of them and perhaps come back later and broadcast seed into them to give ground cover; don't neglect weed control on them.

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5. Soil fertility is even more critical than normal. Make sure you use adequate Phosphate (P) and Potash (K) and do not neglect sulphur - it, similar to nitrogen, leaches out of land with rainfall. Likewise boron, needed for rape and beet, will have leached.

6. Late sowing and loose seedbeds do not go well together. Obviously loose seedbeds are at huge risk in the event of drought and perhaps more importantly, given poor root soil contact, very much at risk to trace element deficiencies.

7. Very high seeding rates can cause more problems than solutions.

8. Late sown crops are very much at risk from BYDV but the carrier - aphids - has taken a real hammering from all the rainfall. However, given the right conditions, aphid numbers can bounce back very quickly so aphicides may be necessary.

9. With all crops sown late there will be very little spread of harvest dates and harvest will be in a period when we get less harvest days/week of shortening days.

10. Fodder will be scarce this coming winter.

Many heavily stocked dairy farms are now reevaluating their grass management programmes and looking to options other than on total reliance on farm grass silage. This year and 2011 have shown that producing enough fodder for a normal winter is not enough. They need insurance in the form of a guaranteed additional fodder and the option of grazing lands rather than closing land for silage during a critical demand period.

Many tillage farmers, tired of messing with crops such as spring oats for their 2nd/3rd crop would be delighted to sow either maize/beet or other crops and fill that need.

In order to give the livestock farmer confidence in supply and the tillage grower confidence in sale, agreements are being entered into with the buyer paying at least half of the agreed price before sowing. The contracts give the buyer not alone security of supply but also an agreed price. The tillage farmer will of course have to ensure supply which means that he will have to sow more than enough land to meet his contracted tonnage.

Beet surplus to contracted tonnage can then be sold at the market price next winter. The contract is similar to what is happening between grain merchants and farmers where the grain merchant supplies seed, fertiliser and chemicals to growers on the understanding that the grain will be delivered to them at harvest.

Finally the statement by the Department of Agriculture on April 23 that the Department has "put forward a strong case to the EU Commission seeking a derogation in relation to crop diversification obligations for the 2016 scheme year" has given most farmers the courage to return 2nd/3rd crop seed.

Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan said tillage farmers will "not be penalised", however, the paperwork for this is still being completed.

It highlights that member states should be given authority to react to extraordinary circumstances without having to seek Commission approval. If Commission approval is to be required, a fast-tracking system (several days not several months) should be put in place. Extraordinary circumstances need extraordinary actions.

PJ Phelan is a tillage advisor based in Tipperary and is a member of the ACA and ITCA

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