Simply hoping we don’t get a repeat of last autumn’s bad sowing conditions is a gamble you can’t afford to take
Nothing came easy for the 2019/20 cropping season. We started out last autumn afraid to sow too early with the fear that the loss of Retigo Deter would result in serious barley yellow dwarf virus problems.
The weather broke when we were about to start sowing, and we ended up sowing in November under poor soil conditions, giving miserable crops.
The reduced autumn sowings left us with a large area of spring barley which we are still struggling to finish.
The delay in sowings last autumn hit severely.
Do you repeat that this year and gamble that we will not get a repeat of that weather pattern in the future?
We ended up sowing spring feed barley, which has in recent years become, at best, a break-even crop. It is not a viable option, at merchant prices, on rented lands.
Yields were very variable this year, but in many cases, reflected timings and conditions under which work had to be carried out.
Only the well organised and very efficient can afford a repeat of the past season.
To get into that league you need:
1. Vision and a plan for the future
■ Identify your strengths and how they might be exploited further. It might be something as simple as availability of tractor capacity at critical times for other neighbouring farmers/contractors or leasing out buildings surplus to requirements.
■ Improve drainage on difficult soils or simply put them back to grass.
■ Look to added value: malt, seed, organic farming and other speciality markets, direct sales from your own yard, grain storage.
2. Land management
■ Good soil structure
Soild structure is the way soil particles fit together and provide space for moisture retention and for roots to grow. Organic matter — crop debris, animal manures — provides the ‘cement’ to hold it together. It must be applied at frequent intervals.
■ Soil fertility
Soil fertility management must incorporate both major and minor elements. Poor fertility in any one of the essential nutrients will limit yield and increase disease pressure.
Any land which has not been soil sampled within the past 3-4 years should be sampled now. Consideration should be given to doing at least one fully trace element analysis on each major soil type on the farm.
■ Soil biology
Soil bugs are the driver to make nutrients available to plants. Your simplest assessment of soil biology is the presence and frequency of earthworms. Remedial action may be by way of addition of organic manures.
3. Crop management
■ Crop rotation is the key to high yield and where you cannot put a good rotation in place sow cover crops as early as possible in the autumn before spring crops. Every arable farm
■ Crops must be examined weekly during the growing season paying attention to nutrition followed by disease management.
Both nutrient and disease control programmes can be significantly different from one year to the next depending on weather and soil conditions.
4. Cost control
■ Machinery must be matched to area, and ownership costs must be kept lower than contractor charges.
Most cost analyses will show machinery management as the area offering the greatest scope for cost reduction.
When you buy a machine you commit yourself to maintaining an area that may not be available in the future. Don’t every forget that it is far easier to buy than it is to sell.
Before replacing or upgrading machinery, evaluate the use of contractors or of a joint venture with a neighbour(s).
■ Land rental or lease costs must be based on readily achievable yield targets.
Base your maximum price on the average yield, input costs and prices for the past five years. Your average land cost (rental plus owned) must be maintained at less than a half tonne of grain (€75/ac.)
■ Despite costs, fungicides and herbicides pay for themselves, so do not include reductions in applications or rates as part of a cost control programme.
Efficiencies are to be achieved with the more precise timings.
PJ Phelan is a tillage advisor based in Tipperary and is a member of the ACA