Shortest ever growing season sees massive variations on yields

Combines were out in force last week
Combines were out in force last week
Pat Minnock

Pat Minnock

The August Bank Holiday weekend saw major combine activity across the country but especially in the south and southeast. Last week saw all combines at work. The harvest could be wrapped up quickly. For a season that looked like it could have been relatively late and one that went straight from winter to summer the results of this subsequent early harvest have been generally and understandably disappointing.

Considering that the time spent by some of these crops in the ground was the shortest ever - some for as little as 14/16 weeks - these results are not surprising.

Crops and grain, in particular, took on a white or bleached appearance rather than the golden colour normally associated with the harvest. This was because crops were not physiologically ripe and were hard to thrash.

There are significant variations in yields being achieved, with spring barley varying from 1.5t/ac to 4t/ac, and winter wheat varying from 2t/ac to 5t/ac.

The average of spring barley appears to be either side of 2t/ac, while winter wheat would appear to be averaging 3.3 t/ac to 3.6t/ac.

These yields are significantly back on last year.

What is very noticeable again is that the better yields for all crops are where crops were sown early, received good dressings of organic fertilisers over the years, and particularly where they followed a break crop or were in a good rotation.

Crops also performed better following cover crops that had been well established early.

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Despite yields of winter barley being generally back at least a half tonne per acre on previous years, the crop appears to have averaged 3.5t/ac.

Returns per acre should remain on par with 2017 given that grain prices are likely to exceed €200/t for undried barley, while straw prices are significantly up and will gross €300/ac in some cases.

This will no doubt drive growers to reconsider planting more winter barley in preference to spring barley for 2019. This could lead to issues with seed supply so if you are planning for winter barley book your seed early.

Cover Crops

Many growers are committed under GLAS to plant cover crops and the earlier these are planted the better. Minister Creed has announced a Fodder Production Incentive Scheme for tillage farmers, and while this is very welcome, it may not suit all growers.

There is an incentive of €155 per hectare to grow temporary crops or short term grasses such as Westerwolds or Italian ryegrass for fodder production over the winter months. A payment of €100/ha for growing catch crops such as fodder rape and turnips is also available.

These incentives are for areas sown over and above the areas committed to GLAS and can be obtained on areas of up to 50 hectares over and above the GLAS contracted areas.

An application form must be completed and submitted if farmers intend to draw down this subsidy.

In addition, GLAS farmers are also allowed to sow Italian Ryegrass as part of their GLAS commitment and they, importantly, will be allowed to avail of the earlier use for this crop. Obviously there are issues in relation to growing these crops for tillage farmers, not least the issue of fencing should farmers wish to graze in situ.

Harvesting, either for ensiling or round baling, will be an option. These crops are not cheap to grow, with seed costs likely to use up most of the payment incentive. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity to provide fodder for your neighbours stock and provide additional income in this difficult year.

These crops should be established as cheaply as possible using min till, but good seed bed conditions and soil to seed contact is essential for good establishment.

Arable crop rotation should be considered when deciding on the varieties to use. For example, brassica type cover crops should be avoided in oil seed rape rotation situations.

For non GLAS cover crops only one species will be required. Varieties to consider include hybrid brassicas such as Redstart and Gorilla and stubble turnips. Seed costs can amount to €20-24/ac, while overall costs can be up to €160/ac. Italian Ryegrass, sown at 16-18 kgs or Westerwolds at 12 kgs per acre can cost €30-45/ac. And with typically half rate fertilisers used and machinery costs these are not cheap.

The use of slurry is highly recommended. It will reduce costs and improves the option to do deals with adjoining cattle farmers. Westerwolds if sown by mid August can be fit to cut by early to mid-October, with the possibility, depending on the winter, of a second cut and certainly some grazing in the spring. It is essential that these crops are not allowed to go to seed as they become a major weed problem in the following crops and are difficult to control.

These crops are probably better considered where break crops such as beans, potatoes, beet or spring rape are planned. A contract of sale should be in place before sowing.

Post-harvest stubble management

This is a crucial time for preparation for next season. Grass weeds have become a major problem. Sterile and meadow broom, canary grass, ryegrass and even some blackgrass has been reported this year. These grasses can be very expensive if not impossible to control. The importation of straw has not helped and is likely to accentuate the problem.

Cleaning machinery between fields, good stubble management and crop rotation, in addition to herbicides are the key to trying to keep on top of these problem weeds. Cultivate stubbles as soon as possible after harvest.

For best control of sterile brome shallow cultivation (less than 2cm) is required to encourage germination. Knowledge of your weed type is important as meadow brome requires light exposure, while sterile brome needs soil cover to break dormancy. Once weeds have struck apply Glyphosate. If possible a number of cultivations will generally give better results.

Pat Minnock is a Carlow based agricultural consultant and a member of the ACA and the ITCA.

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