Farm Ireland

Sunday 20 January 2019

'It's getting to the point where tillage farmers are going to have to take some hard decisions'

Ciaran Phelan adjusts a tine on the final run in 18 acre field for spring barley.The land was soft but workable on the headland in Castleellis , Gowran, Co Kilkenny. Photo Roger Jones.
Ciaran Phelan adjusts a tine on the final run in 18 acre field for spring barley.The land was soft but workable on the headland in Castleellis , Gowran, Co Kilkenny. Photo Roger Jones.

Richard Hackett

It's getting to the point where some hard decisions are going to have to be made. Plans that were hatched last autumn, were revised last winter, were revised in early spring and will have to be revised again.

It's called tillage farming which is about capturing sunlight and turning light energy into usable energy. When you're located on a rock stuck in the middle of the North Atlantic, capturing sunlight is always going to be a fraught way of making a living.

The most pressing decisions are about land destined for beans, spring wheat or spring oats.

We are way past optimum sowing date for these crops. We have to get back to basics before we decide to sow or not to sow.

Sowing date per se will not determine final yield outcome. The most important factor in determining yield outcome is the weather during the grain fill, which is way off into the future.

At this point, we have no idea of when grain fill period of each crop will occur or what the weather will be like during this time.

Long, cool, bright days are on the wish-list for grain fill. The most likely suitable weather for good grain fill is in late June/early July.

The target is to have crops at the suitable stage of development to make best use of these long days at this time of year. However, that's over the average.

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Some years, suitable grain fill weather is much earlier, some years it's much later, some years it doesn't happen at all.

By early sowing, we are giving a crop the best chance to be in the position to make maximum use of long sunny days in late June/early July. Generally by the time late sown crops are ready to fill out, days are shorter, temperatures are too low, and there just isn't enough sunlight around for maximum grain fill.

But that's over the long term. We are not interested in the long term now; we are interested in what will happen this year.

It could well be that good grain fill weather will be in abundance in late July and into August.

If that was the case, we can sow away at our hearts content well into April and into May for these long season crops. The problem is we won't know what the weather will be next July, until next July.

The long term odds are the weather won't be suitable.

So if we are to sow long season crops late in the season this year, we are going against the house. But the house is not always right.

On a 'bet what you can afford to lose' basis, it might be a punt on a small scale.

Two other factors that have to be considered are sowing conditions and harvest date.

Late sown crops, in general have late harvest dates. Most grain growers come out in a rash at the thought of combining in October, which given that most modern combines have heaters installed, is a little hard to explain.

Some harvesting in October is bearable, a lot of harvesting just isn't. An old maxim with regards to late sowing is 'don't sow any more than you can harvest in a day'.

It is probable enough that there will be a day here or there in October when you can go out and mop up a crop. It's a different story looking into a week's harvest at that time of year.

Another factor is sowing conditions. This is especially true for crops like beans that only exist on the gift of residual herbicides - rough seedbeds are a real no-no.

Everything might appear to be going along swimmingly until about mid-June when it's noticed that the thick bulk of lush biomass, is in fact redshank. Then you have a real mess on your hands.

Tough seasons like this are best survived by spreading risk.

Reduce the amount of high risk crops, avoid going all out on alternatives with unreliable markets, and don't completely abandon hard won rotation slots.

And don't forget, we are farmers, we're up for this no matter what the weather throws at us. It's what we do.

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

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