Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Is the sun setting on our tillage sector?

Agri consultants and academics are warning that tillage farming as we know it is no longer viable

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
Claire Mc Cormack

Claire Mc Cormack

Crop diversification is "urgently needed" to prevent the predicted demise of the country's tillage sector, agri experts have warned.

As poor weather, higher input costs, price volatility, yield variations and access to markets continue to hammer the sector, experts and tillage farmer representatives are calling on the Irish Government to prioritise the protection of the sector which they claim is "completely undervalued" when compared to beef and dairy counterparts.

Some suggest a re-evaluation of dependency on wheat and barley, the crops that dominate the sector, and a renewed focus on alternative crops and proteins sources could offer a sustainable solution.


Others warn that a focus on niche markets is too limiting as a long-term strategy and pinpoint the cost of land as a "major barrier".

Meanwhile, some serious concerns linger over disease control. There is also increasing scepticism about the potential of energy crops.

Dr Fiona Doohan (pictured), a senior lecturer from UCD School of Biology and Environmental Science, claims a concentrated revival of traditional crops including oats and beans are key to shining light in the tunnel.

"We totally undervalue the tillage sector in Ireland," she says.

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"From an international perspective, agriculture is dominated by the animal.

"If you want food security in the future, you have to make sure that farmers are constantly producing plant protein, but if people see tillage as a non-viable career, they'll move out of it and we'll look back in 20 years and say, 'Where are the people who produced good plant protein?'" she said.

Last year, a Teagasc survey found the average tillage farm will generate an income of just €22,000 or €350/ha by 2020, with input prices expected to increase by 5pc, while yields are estimated to drop by 3pc compared to 2015. An 8pc drop in basic payments has also been mooted.

Dr Doohan says the sector hasn't been focusing on crops suited to protect environmental issues in Ireland.

"We've just been looking at what is coming from northern Europe and the UK.

"If we were to re-evaluate crops grown on the western seaboard, we would see that relatively low-input crops, such as oats, did really well in those climates in the past on very marginal soil," she said.

She claims that diversification based on region in terms of crop loss and variety is key.

"I would look at diversification and I would jump into oats and beans.

"You could diversify crops so they have a better tolerance so you can harvest earlier," she said.

Although the market for oat-based products is set to rise, lack of Irish oat variety is seen as a major stumbling block.

"There is only one variety of oats; it's been growing for 30 years. The genes could be greatly enhanced with a little bit of breeding.

"It's not radical but it is a shift - the genetics will dictate when it matures."

However, agricultural consultant Pat Minnock says focusing on alternative crops or malting barley for brewing is too limiting.

"We're only tinkering around the edges with niche crops: it's not going to be the panacea. What has to be done is the cost of land and fertiliser has to come down; that would make a huge difference. Fertiliser costs should be half the cost of inputs," he said.

"All the money is spent on production - you're doing well to break even. There is no simple answer," he said.

As serious problems with controlling Septoria disease threatens to decimate winter wheat, Mr Minnock says farmers "can't keep going for nothing".

"The gap is getting wider, money isn't there and costs are too high. Machinery people will be the biggest losers because they're the biggest buyers," he said.

Bobby Miller, Chairman of the Irish Grain Growers Association, says farmers with land taken and leases on con-acre are getting more into debt every year.

"Commercially we could be wiped out in 5-7 years. At present, the ordinary tillage farmer is just breaking even but, long-term, bank managers will start asking questions.

"If you have a family to rear, you can't keep going - that reality has dawned," he said.

Although Mr Miller welcomed last week's announcement of a €26m Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) for tillage equipment, he said the sector has been largely ignored on the political stage.

"There is a pure lack of support for tillage; we've been left behind other sectors on funding and we'll get the brunt of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) too.

"Tillage is carbon-positive but that is being ignored from a Government, industry, research and education point of view," added Mr Miller.

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