Farm Ireland

Sunday 18 March 2018

Tillage advice: Organic manures can dramatically reduce costs

Organic manures are an effective case of N, P and K.
Organic manures are an effective case of N, P and K.
Pat Minnock

Pat Minnock

Now that the turkey has been polished off for another year, this is a good opportunity to look back on 2016 and look ahead to the cropping season.

In reviewing the past season before the start of the spring you can identify issues that you might consider doing differently and this might help to improve the potential for a better outcome in 2017.

The minimum you should do is to calculate the margins or profitability of your various crops.

Obviously some crops will have performed better than others for a variety of reasons; and, similarly, some plots or fields will have performed better than others.

This is a good time to finalise your sowing plan for this season.

It is likely that you still have some crops to sow. If, for example, some fields are under performing what is the reason?

Maybe they need a rest, a break crop or the addition of organic manures.

This could be the ideal year for making this decision as the potential for good prices next autumn is not great.

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If some of your land parcels only broke even or left a small margin in 2016 why not apply organic fertiliser to these fields, sow a cover crop and give the field a chance to rejuvenate and improve.

Not sowing a crop won't lose you any money and the likely soil improvement and potential for future improved yields will be of greater benefit.

Should prices rise over the next couple of years these fields will then be able to perform better and give better returns.

Leaving some ground fallow or planting with a cover crop may also help to satisfy your two/three crop rule.

This may also facilitate the possibility of doing some reclamation work on some of the fields that you have been putting off for a number of years.

When looking forward you should look at the potential for including the higher value crops such as malting or distilling barley, seed crops, beans and gluten free oats.

Obviously once you have decided on your cropping programme then you can draw up your fertiliser (NMP) plan and look for some potential cost savings.

The use of organic manures can dramatically reduce costs and leave your soils in a better condition.

Coming up to the end of the year many livestock producers required their tillage friends to facilitate them by taking some organic manures.

Now is the time to have a discussion with these livestock neighbours to ensure that you get your organic manure at the time of the year that best suits your situation.

Livestock facilities and tanks are most likely full at the moment and farmers will start spreading slurry, FYM and organic fertiliser in earnest over the next couple of weeks. Sourcing this material and applying it before ploughing will benefit your ground and will also facilitate your neighbours and reduce their risk of breeching their Nitrates limits.

Up-to-date soil sample results are essential for accurate planning. Cattle slurry can be worth up to €50 per hectare. As tillage farmers are well aware, fertiliser accounts for over 50pc of input costs.

Forward purchasing of some chemical fertiliser, even at this stage, may help to reduce the bill further.

Many farmers were well aware of a substantial reduction in fertiliser prices last autumn, with nitrogen freely available for less than €200/t - up to €120/t cheaper than the spring of 2016. I understand some merchants bought significant quantities at the time and may still be prepared to offer fertiliser at good value.

However, it is reasonable to assume (almost a guarantee) that fertiliser prices will rise when demand commences.

It might be worthwhile to have "the chat" with your friendly merchant before the days begin to lengthen too much.

This is also the time of the year to look at your machinery and see what needs to be done before the season starts in earnest.

If you are considering replacement of machinery, is there an opportunity for you to discuss the matter with some of your friends and neighbours and look at sharing/pooling some machinery?

This can be a way to greatly reduce some of your machinery costs.

In the current low prices climate, changing machinery is probably the last item for consideration on most tillage farms.

However, at some stage machinery that is getting older will require greater maintenance and costs associated with this can be significant.

Spring beans are possibly the first crop that you might consider sowing.

The target of 12,000 hectares ceiling for protein payments was slightly exceeded for the first time in 2016, thereby reducing the protein payment slightly to €246/ha.

It is likely that this area of beans will again be grown as generally beans have performed relatively well. It is advisable that markets be sought in advance and that contracts are signed with end users before sowing.

Early sowing is essential for good yields and an early harvest. Very attainable average yield returns over the last number of years of 6t/ha to 6.5 t/ha left €280 to €320/ha.

This compares very favourably with average yields of 7.5t per hectare of spring barley which is projected to leave a margin, at €135/t, or approximately €120/ha.

You might also consider including some spring rape in your plan. Three tonnes per hectare could leave a gross margin of €170 to €190 per hectare.

Finally, the Teagasc National Tillage Conference will be held this year in the Lyrath Hotel, Kilkenny on Thursday January 26.

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

Indo Farming