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PJ Phelan: Environmental programmes need to place more trust in farmers' judgement

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JP Fenlon from Ballylinan ploughing in the senior conventional at the Portlaoise & District ploughing match at Ballyfin, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey

JP Fenlon from Ballylinan ploughing in the senior conventional at the Portlaoise & District ploughing match at Ballyfin, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey

Alf Harvey

JP Fenlon from Ballylinan ploughing in the senior conventional at the Portlaoise & District ploughing match at Ballyfin, Co Laois. Photo: Alf Harvey

The decision by the Department to grant an exception from the two/three crop rule is very welcome and has come in time before sowing has commenced.

The exception will apply on a case by case basis for farmers who had winter crops, maize or potatoes on their 2019 BPS application. They must also be able to demonstrate that they were adversely affected by weather conditions in late 2019. Further details will be made available later. The exemption will not be available to everyone.

The Teagasc National Tillage Conference last week posed lots of questions and very few answers. Everyone went away thinking but with some degree of optimism - the key to a successful conference.

A paper on how integrated pest management (IPM) is critical for managing pyrethroid resistance in aphids focused on chemical control of aphids. It stated that IMP was important, but gave no detailed advice and didn't address the impact of pesticides on natural beneficial predators.

Likewise, a paper presented by a British researcher at the Teagasc Tillage Forum last autumn had no information on the loss of predators.

We gave too many years saying that the cost of an aphicide was only a couple of euros per acre, totally ignoring the impact on non-target species and the benefits they contribute by feasting on aphids.

With the loss of chemical active ingredients and very few new replacement products, research must focus on enhancing habitats to promote desirable species. There is likely more to be gained both environmentally and financially by not using insecticides.

We need a strategy to restore biodiversity to fields that have being sprayed annually with insecticides. The role of IPM is not "to protect the pyrethroid class of insecticides" - it is to use strategies to minimise/avoid their use.

The next paper addressed the development of herbicide resistance to grass weeds in Ireland. It highlighted the need for a variety of IPM tactics as well as using herbicides.

The spread of resistant weeds from one farm to the next may in many cases be due to lack of hygiene practices when moving machinery, particularly combines, from one farm to another.

On disease control and the loss of Chlorothalonil (Bravo), Stephen Kildea had a perfect take on IPM when saying that "ideally, strategies for their control are interactive in nature, utilising equally variety, agronomy and chemistry with each component aiding the other."

The loss of Chlorothalonil is a serious loss in the short term until a suite of IPM strategies is developed to control both septoria in wheat and ramularia in barley.

Chlorothalonil was our key player in protecting other chemistries from the development of resistance. More precise nutrient application has a role to play in disease control.

Teagasc is currently researching the contribution of boron and sulphur to septoria control. Cereals are sensitive to boron which becomes toxic to them at high levels.

Boron is also known to decrease the incidence of rhizoctonia on beans and peas, clubroot in brassicas and yellow rust in wheat.

Sulphur is known to decrease powdery mildew in both barley and wheat; ramularia in beet; blackleg and common scab in potato and alternaria, light leaf spot and sclerotinia in oilseed rape. It is therefore important in our overall IPM strategy to correct critical trace element deficiencies and at the same time be conscious of toxicity risks. Currently we have limited information on trace element levels in soils but will have to enhance our knowledge if we are to reduce our dependence on pesticides.

Tillage carbon footprint

Karl Richards gave tillage farming a much needed boost by stating that the carbon footprint of Irish tillage crops is generally low. He encouraged tillage farmers to apply organic manures, to sow cover crops, incorporate straw and adopt min till and expanded rotations.

Dermot Forristal outlined cultivation techniques for oilseed rape production, highlighted its capture of carbon and stated to benefits to soil biology in adopting good rotational practices.

A Danish speaker related that cover crops are compulsory in Denmark.

Similar to Ireland, the Danes have found that late harvesting of the main crop resulting in late establishment and poor growth/ environmental and financial benefits of the cover crop.

That is a serious problem in Ireland for GLAS participants, who have in difficult seasons been forced to sow crops before the deadline date, knowing that the crop was unlikely to be successful.

Future environmental/ farming programmes need to place more trust in farmer judgements and provide for flexibility in the terms and conditions.

This year is the International Year of Plant Health which will promote plant health in "light of increasing trade and new plant risks caused through climate change".

Protection of plant health will "help to end hunger, reduce poverty, protect the environment and boost economic development".

We must all play our roles.

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

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