Farm Ireland

Thursday 23 November 2017

Tillage advice: Change in the weather gives us a pause for thought

Field work has been slowed by the wet and frosty weather
Field work has been slowed by the wet and frosty weather
Pat Minnock

Pat Minnock

The wet and sometimes frosty weather of the past few weeks has slowed field work, which, in my opinion, is a good thing.

It is still too early to sow crops and also still too early to top dress winter cereals. If weather conditions improve and soil conditions allow, sowing could commence before the end of the month.

The first crop to be considered for sowing should be spring beans. Given the type of weather we have had over the winter, it is reasonable to assume that there is still some winter left.

The last few sowing seasons have varied and even where the season was relatively late, once crops got away to a good start, yields were still good. We have also all seen situations where crops were sown early in wet and cold soils and, even after emergence, struggled to get going and did not yield.

Nevertheless, given the time required for maturity, beans should be planted towards the end of February or early March. Sowing should be into good, firm, dry seed beds. Spring wheat might also be sown at this time, but hold off for good soil conditions so crops can establish quickly. Spring barley sown prior to March 17 rarely performs well, unless weather conditions remain good after sowing, and in many cases can suffer from delayed emergence and many pest problems.

Very early sowing does not always lead to higher returns and is a bigger gamble and can be costlier.

Medium to heavy soils with a pH of 6.5 to 7 are most suitable for beans. Beans will not perform well in acidic conditions. It is important that the P index is reasonably high - a minimum of index 3; if lower than this, placement of P is essential. Trace elements such as magnesium, zinc, manganese and sulphur are vital if this crop is to perform well. The optimum plant density for beans is 25 to 35 plants per square metre. Crops should be planted to a depth of 100cm to 125cm (4in to 5in).

The bean acreage will likely reach if not exceed the target of 12,000 hectares, at which stage the protein payment will start to reduce.

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While waiting to start field work, it is advisable to ensure machinery is in good working order. Plan your cropping rotation and ensure that all your input requirements are to hand when conditions allow field work. You could also consider this time as an opportunity to mark out sections of fields that have not performed in the past, with a view to improving their productivity.

Consider leaving sections fallow and treat with organic manures; cover crops or leave sections idle for some drainage/reclamation works later. Given the prospects for prices next harvest, fields or sections of fields that perform poorly will leave a negative return and there will be no financial cost by leaving them fallow.

This is also a good time to talk to your local merchant or neighbouring farmer in relation to their requirements for the autumn and assess the opportunities to enter into a contract, either with your local merchant for product that they see a market for - such as beans, peas, oilseed rape - or speciality wheat, barley or oat crops such as seed and gluten-free oats.

Neighbouring livestock farmers may welcome the opportunity to discuss the options for obtaining a relatively cheaper feed next autumn in the form of maize or fodder beet. Deals should be considered now to leave both parties with a reasonable margin and take away the gamble on prices.

Once there is a reasonable margin agreed and both parties are happy, you can then proceed into the spring season in the happy knowledge that your work will be rewarded next harvest. Obviously, it is imperative that a contract between both parties is drawn up.

Top dressing of winter crops should be delayed until these crops have reached at least growth stage 30. Consideration should also be given to the type of weather expected after top dressing. Early top dressing will lead to early growth and, in barley in particular, switch the crop from the grain formation to the vegetative stage.

There is no evidence to say that delaying nitrogen application on winter barley until g.s. 31 will greatly affect yield. My experience would indicate that if the first nitrogen application is delayed the application rate should be increased to at least 50pc of the total projected application. Hybrid barley does have a greater demand for early nitrogen so, if conditions are favourable, this might be the first barley treated. There is much discussion on the use of 'protected urea' instead of CAN.

Again, in my experience, the use of urea early in the season performs well and greatly reduces costs. The protected urea is probably more important as the season proceeds and temperatures increase. The big health warning relates to the spreading width even with some of the new 'protected urea'. Regular checking and calibration of machine and product is essential.

Finally, all farmers should consider the SBCI low interest (2.95pc) money available since last week from the pillar banks. These loans are unsecured and available up to €150,000 per farmer. These are targeted at farmers who may be experiencing some cash-flow difficulties. They are also available for input purchases this season and will allow farmers under financial pressure to buy inputs for cash prices rather than depend on expensive merchant credit.

This facility, which is paid directly to the banks by the SBCI, should be used in preference to the standard stocking loan and terms offered by banks.

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

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