Returning to tried and trusted techniques may well be the tillage farmer's best bet

The grain market is struggling to reach last year's prices
The grain market is struggling to reach last year's prices
PJ Phelan

PJ Phelan

Tillage farmers are great people to adopt new technology be it new cultivation equipment, new herbicides, fungicides, trace elements or bio stimulants.

All of those come with increasing costs while selling grain into a market which struggles to give us last year's prices.

Merchants now claim that paying last year's price is more expensive than imported maize and other by-products.

For as long as the EU and the EU consumer is content to allow imports of feedstuffs that do not meet our regulatory standards and have an increased transport carbon footprint, grain growers have to use every technique to survive.

Some of the newer technologies may be too expensive but a lot of the older advice and knowledge is cheaper to implement and will give significant return.

The three most important things that the tillage farmer must get right are soil condition, soil fertility and soil rotation.

Soil condition

Soils must be able to hold water in the event of drought and drain surplus water away during periods of high rainfall. One of the primary concerns has been /is to avoid soil compaction which causes poor drainage and restricted plant growth. Lack of soil consolidation leaves air pockets and poor growth in drier conditions. Poor consolidation of seedbeds is a problem on some soils where there is a reliance on ring rollers to firm soil to a depth. Ring rollers do a good job to push down smaller stones, break clods and to firm soil in the top few inches. They do not provide firming to plough depth.

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In an attempt to avoid the costs associated with ploughing there is an increasing interest by farmers in minimum tillage techniques.

Cultivation depths vary from just enough to cover seed to disking to traditional ploughing depths.

Concern has been expressed in the UK that min till techniques may be contributing to their yield plateau (limited yield potential). Continued use and expansion of min till will be jeopardised in the event of further restriction or banning of glyphosate use.

Soil fertility.

I find it hard to believe that in spite of over 60 years of research and advice that crops are still sown on nutrient deficient lands. The requirements for lime, phosphate and potassium are well known but still frequently neglected. All tillage soils should be soil sampled at least every three years and fertiliser applied in accordance with analysis results.

Not being allowed to apply phosphate after September 15 is detrimental to winter crops sown on land which is at Index 1 / 2.

Soil pH should be corrected with lime application two years prior to sowing most of our tillage crops. Don't forget that fresh lime will aggravate "take all". Imported cattle/pig slurry or sludge have the benefit of bringing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium together with a whole range of trace elements.

The contribution that slurry/sludge will make to building organic matter levels is low but better than nothing. If using such materials look for a recent analysis and get your nutrient management plan amended.

Soil rotation

While this year's harvest is far from completed, on many farms, it has really proved the advantages of good crop rotations.

First wheats have yielded up to and in excess of 12t/ha while 2nd wheats have struggled to beat 8t/ha. Most 1st wheats are now after break crops - oilseed rape, potatoes and beet as we have very little long term grassland being ploughed.

Some of this year's poor winter barley have been attributed to sowings into years 2-4 after a break crop - the "take all years".

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to sow spring barley in those years or, if you can find a market, winter/spring oats.

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

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