Rotation is vital to escape vicious circle of pestilence, weather damage and low prices
It's human nature to always try to re-fight the battles of last year. So the 2018/19 cropping programme was based around things that worked, and more importantly things that didn't work, in 2017/18.
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Spring barley was down, spring beans were at best stabilised and winter barley was up.
What are the battle scars from 2018/19 that will affect the 2019/20 programme?
The mantle of public enemy no 1 has recently been bestowed on the tiny aphid and its ability to carry pestilence and disease in the form of BYDV.
You'd think the only problem the Irish cereal industry has is a few yellow leaves, such is the talk of BYDV at the minute.
The recent break in the weather, while unwelcome on many fronts, has made the decision for many about early sowing crops for the coming season.
That break, and the drop in temperature, may well reduce BYDV levels over the coming season.
A much more damaging and much less talked about disease that was widespread last year is Take-all. It appeared in unusual circumstances: in first wheat crops, in winter barley crops, in fields that were in continuous wheat for 30 years.
Where did that come from? The answer may well be as a result of the extremely mild autumn/winter/spring we enjoyed last season.
Take-all is a fungus, and like any fungus, needs moisture, a food source and heat in which to grow. Last season soil temperatures were high all autumn, winter and early spring. It is not inconceivable that the disease was able to grow continuously over the winter, when normally it would have been dormant.
In future mild winters, we might need to be more aware of take-all levels.
So how do we go about addressing the risks to our crops? We have little by way of armoury to combat BYDV, and even less to control sporadic attacks of take-all.
That's not to mention the risks posed by wet-weather diseases, low fertility, compaction and above all, a price determined by world markets that doesn't currently leave sufficient margins to make our businesses viable.
The best way we can stabilise our businesses in the long term is by spreading out risk. In cropping terms, that means rotation.
If we are to read the tea leaves emanating from Europe as they design the new round of the CAP, we could well be forced down a route of rotations in our cropping programme. As a sector, we should embrace this change.
Even if it is not forced upon us by Brussels, practising rotation in some form or other in all soil types and in all situations gives benefit to a business.
Some crops don't suit some soils or some situations, some crops suit others, we know that. But I have never come across a soil type or a situation where the best option is to monocrop on a continuous basis.
Of the main break crops, none are without extra risk. Oilseed rape creates an excellent ecosystem for slugs to take over the place; slugs also have developed a new speciality in devouring cover crops at an alarming rate.
Establishing beans can also disappear overnight, hungry crows being the main culprits. Oats can suffer a worse fate, only this time it's the customers that can disappear quicker than the crows can.
But over time, and as experience grows, fertility can be built, sowing dates can be spread out, harvesting dates can be spread out, problem weeds can be controlled and overall yields increased.
In time, businesses can become more resilient to particular shocks to the system, be they weather events in autumn that stops sowing, or broken weather during the main crop harvest, poor prices for a commodity or poor demand.
In a temperate maritime climate with an insatiable demand for starch and protein for animal feed, wheat and barley will continue to be the bedrock of a good tillage business.
However, by developing a more nuanced approach to a cropping programme, by introducing break crops, perhaps bringing in potatoes or vegetables or even introducing temporary grass/clover leys, overall a business can become more resilient to change - to the point that one pest or one weather event or one price drop won't bring a business the brink of survival.
That's what pest control and sustainability are all about.
Richard Hackett is an Agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA
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