Farm Ireland

Tuesday 20 March 2018

Revamped cropping programmes can reduce risks

Tommy Farrell from Moynalty driving his Massey Ferguson 35 tractor at the Moynalty Steam Threshing Festival in Co. Meath. Photo: Damien Eagers

Richard Hackett

The 2017 harvest is not in the sheds yet, but already thoughts are turning towards harvest 2018.

From the perspective of other businesses this might appear a bit odd.

But in a cereal business, there is no time where everything is completed, can be reflected upon and, if needs be, the cycle stopped.

Modern agricultural businesses don't run like that.

Land is taken on five years leases, loans are taken out over 10 years, facilities are improved and developed over decades and mouths have to be fed every day.

There is little or no opportunity to call an immediate halt because of a bad price, a bad crop or bad weather

By their nature, farm businesses are very inelastic to change, which over the medium to long term, is probably more a good thing than a bad thing. Otherwise we would all be milking cows today.

The main reason for this inelasticity is infrastructure. Combine harvesters are not that useful around grazing paddocks, milking machines are of limited use when drying grain.

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Businesses think long and hard when divesting one set of infrastructure in order to invest in another set - it's an expensive undertaking.

But even within a sector, there can often be huge inertia to even changing a cropping programme. Again sometimes this is for good reason.

Winter barley performed very well in 2015, and to be honest has 'dined out' on this performance ever since. It's a bit like the cow who had twins five years ago but has missed two calvings since, yet still is considered a 'great cow'.

Winter oilseed rape - despite its inability to string two good years in succession - still has a loyal following, though their perseverance has been rewarded this year.

So a certain amount of inertia to change is understandable, but too much inertia is not. An example of this is winter wheat.

The acreage of winter wheat is still way out of kilter with the acreage of break crops grown, which suggests that there is still an awful lot of wheat grown in second or subsequent slots, or on a continuous basis.

Twenty years ago this was fine.

Continuous wheat is a very consistent performer, takes good weather and bad weather, wet spells and dry all in its stride.

It has a wide window of opportunity for sowing and a wider window of opportunity for harvesting.

Twenty years ago if you had 50 hectares of land in stubble in October, you could confidently tell the bank manager you would have 450 tonnes if not 500 tonnes of wheat to sell the following October, with a healthy margin on every one of those tonnes.

This has all changed. While winter wheat is still the number one survivor in terms of its ability to compensate over the growing season in response to conditions, the production costs are just too high.

And the performance of continuous wheat has not moved on with 10t/ha still a high target to reach.

Removal of pesticides and the focus of breeding towards yield has resulted in a considerable narrowing in the window for sowing, and an even narrower window for harvesting. All of this increases production risk.

Spring barley is another example of a consistent performer, but unfortunately for too many growers it consistently performs at a loss.

This production risk can only be addressed by widening the cropping programme and introducing break crops and rotations and organic manures.

Individually, each of the available break crop and other cropping options are higher risk than any wheat or barley crop, and each have their own significant weaknesses.

However, taken on a whole farm approach, the introduction of break crops and rotations along with organic manures will reduce the overall risk for the tillage farmer.

2017 is perfect example of this. While the harvest of the main crops commences in very broken weather, farms with good rotations already have up to 40pc of their crop already in the docket book, or delayed until September if beans are grown.

This significantly reduces the pinch point pressure of a small harvest window.

Introducing rotations, different crops and organic manures will increase the required management input.

But it will also increase the yield of the main crops, reduce the harvest volume to more manageable bites over a longer window and improve the long-term sustainability of the business.

Richard Hackett is an agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA

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