Reduced supply will see straw prices remain at €100/ac

Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

Straw prices will continue to top €100/ac for the foreseeable future farm consultants maintain.

With the overall area of spring and winter barley back 20pc since 2014, Tipperary-based tillage advisor, PJ Phelan, claimed that reduced supply and increased demand meant prices should remain strong. Last year straw averaged around €110/ac as a combination of low yields and strong demand, as a result of the summer drought and fodder shortages, drove up prices.

Mr Phelan pointed out that the area planted to barley had fallen from 215,000ha to 165,000ha over the last five years. He said the consequent drop in the tonnage of straw available to farmers would inevitably drive up straw prices.

While the increased returns from straw have been welcomed by growers, John Geraghty of Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) cautioned that the loss of organic matter from tillage ground, and the consequent requirement for additional fertiliser, was rarely factored into the value of straw by farmers.

Soil organic matter levels have fallen 50pc in continuous tillage ground over the last three decades but this cost is often forgotten when putting a price on straw, Mr Geraghty told a cereal growers meeting in Clonmel.

"Tillage farmers have been selling straw, and its contained carbon, for years now at too low a price and have been buying back in extra nitrogen and compound fertiliser - with no contained carbon - to replace it," the lecturer in land management at WIT told growers.

"In the vast majority of situations when straw goes out the farm gate it's gone for good - the resultant manure or compost rarely if ever comes back. Tillage farmers are losing on both sides of the equation, so no common sense is being applied here at all," Mr Geraghty said.

He estimated the value of carbon in the straw at €60-70/ac - based on current EU Emissions Trading prices of €20/t for carbon. A further €20-25/ac is required to replace the P and K losses, leaving little or no allowance from the current straw price for other nutrient losses.

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Mr Geraghty said a change in farmers' mindset toward soil health is required for farmers to appreciate the true value of straw. "Throughout South America the farmers' refrain is 'the grain is for the farmer, the residue is for the soil,'" Mr Geraghty pointed out.

"Down there [South America] they would not part with their residue [straw] for love nor money. They are fully aware how crucial it is for maintaining soil physical structure, soil chemical balance and soil biological health," he said.

"Back here, straw value, and whether to return it to the land, has often been incorrectly based on the content of some of the main nutrients contained in the residue - nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and magnesium. The carbon content is never considered - although carbon is the main driver of soil health and fertility," Mr Geraghty said. "If we don't value straw ourselves, whatever the reason, how can we reasonably expect anyone else to pay for what it is truly worth."

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