Stop this rot before the wheels come hurtling off tillage wagon

Members of the Irish Grain farmers association return to protest outside the Guinness Storehouse over the poor prices that they are getting for malting barley. Photo: Damien Eagers
Members of the Irish Grain farmers association return to protest outside the Guinness Storehouse over the poor prices that they are getting for malting barley. Photo: Damien Eagers

Richard Hackett

Reading last week's edition of the Farming Independent, I was struck by a comment made by my colleague in the sheep management section, John Large. It is only when you read of the intention to invest tens of thousands of hard-earned euro to install a slurry-based manure storage system to combat the loss of straw, that you finally realise how much the wheels have come off the wagon in the tillage sector.

While incomes rise and fall in any sector at any given time, there are two overarching risks in Irish agriculture that we can't ignore: Reduction in greenhouse gas emissions; and improvement in water quality.

The current 'death by neglect' that the tillage industry is undergoing will have a hugely negative role on addressing these risks.

First the emissions. We are constantly being preached at that concentrates fed to animals will have the same emissions regardless of where that concentrate emanates from. So feeding rolled barley that was grown across ditch has exactly the same emissions as feeding soya hulls that was shipped from halfway across the world. Fair enough, we'll accept the figures.

What I can't accept is that by replacing a manure storage system based upon a carbon neutral, locally produced, recycled material such as straw, with digging great big holes to fill with concrete and steel, is also 'emissions neutral'. Especially as the biggest emitters of emissions are, coincidentally, cement and steel production. Decrease the straw, increase the concrete and steel.

As for water quality, the nonsense is even more apparent. In the 1700s, food production in England was revolutionised with the practice of crop rotations and with the development of the 'Norfolk four' rotation and the like. Crop rotations led to a huge increase in productivity and output and more importantly a huge increase in productivity per labour unit.

This agricultural revolution provided more food for labour and more available labour which in turn filled the factories and formed the basis of the industrial revolution that followed, but I digress.

The basis of the Norfolk four rotation is the balance between livestock and crop production. By growing fodder crops such as turnips in the rotation, more livestock could be overwintered and were far healthier.

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More and healthier livestock produced more and healthier manure, which in turn could be used to fertilise more crops. So more crops, and more animal and animal products, could be sold off a given area. Crop rotation is based on the building up of soil reserves with livestock, to deplete again with crops, and the system 'rotates'.

So how does this affect the current conundrum we are experiencing in crop production? Of course we are far too modern now to depend on such archaic notions for our fancy production systems. Agronomy is now based around a few bright sparks with logos on their jackets, not reusing old animal poo.

The current direction Irish agriculture is heading, where we are developing a one-trick pony of transforming Brazilian and American plant protein into pizza topping and protein shakes, for re-export somewhere else, is going to dangerously skew this cycle way off-kilter.

If we continue to build up soil reserves with ever-increasing applications of animal manures, while at the same time ceasing the production of reserve-depleting crops, eventually we are going to fill the pot and eventually the pot is going to overfill. This overfill will be measured in terms of more nutrients ending up in our rivers, lakes, bays and estuaries.

Basic common sense would suggest a mix of agricultural production is a more sustainable model to pursue. No one is disagreeing with this. No one wants to pour money into slurry tanks when straw bedding is readily available. Intuitively everyone would like to see a situation where crops are grown locally, grain and straw is sold for livestock use, and the subsequent manure is spread back on the cropping land. Environmentally, logistically, and economically it's a sustainable model. Unfortunately we are letting the potential for this model wither away in a morass of indifference and prevarication. If we are to pursue this model, it will have to be actively managed and developed. It will have to be designed, and road tested and implemented correctly.

The first thing to do is to stop the rot. Tillage farmers need to know that their efforts are at least being acknowledged, if not rewarded. Their role in the development of the dairy industry is not simply a one-off source of large land blocks. They are an essential part of the development of a sustainable animal product export industry and this role should be developed. At the very least, they should provide enough straw to bed the sheep.

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

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