Kilkenny tillage farmer Thomas Butler credits his farm’s success and recent Tirlán award to a diverse variety of crops, a strong focus on fertility and rotation practices. and a willingness to experiment
The Butler family have been farming in Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny, since 1820, when the local rector’s son bought the farm of land surrounding the rectory.
Today, Thomas Butler runs the family’s 470-acre farm with his wife Annabel and their two children, Jago and Alice, farming a varied rotation of crops as well as experimenting with heritage wheat varieties, grassland and woodland.
Last week they claimed the coveted Tirlán Quality Grain Supplier of the Year Award for 2022, amid strong competition from across the country following a record harvest.
According to the judges, a strong focus on soil fertility and rotations were key to their success.
It was the wide range of break crops grown on the farm that helped them deliver the perfect conditions for a bumper crop of Green Feed Wheat, according to Tirlán, with their green feed wheat averaging a specific weight of 80.8kph and 11.0pc protein at a moisture of 14.1pc across 310t.
According to Thomas, his botany side motivates him to try different things on the farm. “I went off to university to study botany in Edinburgh and was a plant breeder for a while in the UK, before I came home in 2003.
“I was always going to farm with dad and take over, and it suited my father at the time too.
“I love growing new things. Wheat and barley is fine but it’s good to experiment.”
Growing up on the farm, Thomas says there were sheep and sucklers, which they got out of in the 1980s and early 1990s, respectively, with the focus moving firmly to the tillage enterprise.
Today, their farming operation comprises of 250 acres of tillage, 120 acres of grassland and 60 acres of woodland.
On the tillage side, 90pc of crops are established using a plough while about 10pc are direct drilled. The Butlers’ rotation includes crops such as winter feed barley, spring malting barley, food grade peas, feed beans and winter or spring oats.
“We always had winter wheat, winter barley and malting or feed barley — depending on the year, as well as oats. We grow Bachelor’s peas for human consumption and that acreage goes up and down every year.
“And the last few years we have been growing beans more and more, as the prices have been good.”
While they experimented with Oilseed Rape for a number of years, a couple of bad harvests put a dampener on that, although Thomas says he would not rule out growing it again. “I might go back and visit it again if I feel brave.”
When the Butlers were approached by Bennettsbridge-based flour producer Kells Wholemeal, which is run by father and son, Bill and Robert Mosse, Thomas says they were delighted to try new grains.
“They approached us to try out some different grains, including spelt and rye, so we went off to Denmark to look at how they were growing spring wheats, spelt and rye there.
“Then we started that and we have a good relationship with the Mosses and the spring crops worked. There is very high protein in these wheats and we now have 40-50 acres of that.”
Another experiment on the farm has been to grow naked barley, which is hull-less when threshed. “We’re still playing with this. Last year was the first year we grew it and it lodged, but the quality was still good, so we’re trying it again this year.”
Another crop the Butlers are growing is spring linseed. “Seedtech approached me and it’s a bit of an experiment, but we’re in our third year of it. Some of it is for human consumption but we’re also developing an Irish seed source from it.”
The wide range of break crops grown on the farm provides an ideal entry for first wheat crops, but it also helps the family farm stay viable, according to Thomas.
“You’re always looking to keep the farm viable. We don’t have huge acreage, but it’s all owned land, which helps.”
And while there are “a few tillage farmers around here”, Thomas admits he has been approached more than once to rent the farm.
“When you’re hearing of the rent prices that are being paid at the moment.... we hummed and hawed about it.”
But he questions how sustainable those prices being paid for rented land are and also questions what he would do if he no longer had use of that land.
Thomas manages the spraying and fertilising on the farm, but hires in contractors to do much of the other work.
The Butlers were one of 13 suppliers honoured for their dedication and attention to detail in grain production at the recent Tirlán grain awards.
Tirlán Chairman, John Murphy, said choosing an overall winner from among the 13 high calibre entrants was extremely difficult in a harvest year that was blessed with great weather, exceptional quality and high yields.
“The excellence of our suppliers is something we in Tirlán never take for granted. Generations of commitment, knowledge and expertise are what set us apart from growers all over the world.”
WINTER (CASSIA) FEED BARLEY
Tom Mahon farms a mixed tillage and sheep farm with his son Padraig at Mooreabbey, just outside Monasterevin in Co Kildare.
They farm approximately 300 acres and the main crops are winter barley, winter wheat, spring barley, oilseed rape and fodder beet. They also grow forage cover crops, which are grazed by sheep. The farm carries over 500 ewes and all lambs produced are finished on the farm.
The winning crop had an average specific weight of 71.0kph, 0.5pc screenings and 10.7pc protein at a moisture of 14.2pc across 169t.
Paul Young farms a mixed tillage and sheep farm with his parents, Robert and Catherine, at The Heath near Portlaoise in Co Laois. The Youngs grow both winter and spring crops using a plough-based system of crop establishment.
The farm operates a diverse rotation that includes fodder beet, spring beans and oilseed rape as break crops. The main cereals grown are spring malting barley, winter barley (for seed) and gluten-free oats. The sheep enterprise comprises both early and mid-season lambing flocks.
The winning crop of Laureate malting barley averaged a specific weight of 70.4kph, 1.9pc screenings and 10.1pc protein at a moisture of 13.4pc across 128t.
PREMIUM SPRING BARLEY
James Hill and his wife, Anne, run a mixed tillage and sheep farm at Dunganstown in east Wicklow. The 300 acres is given over to wheat, barley and oats and a combination of root crops such as swedes and turnips.
James runs a flock of 500 ewes, which lamb in spring. The root crops, which are grown mainly for the sheep flock, provide an ideal break crop for winter wheat.
The winning crop averaged a specific weight of 72.6kph with screenings of 1.6pc and protein of 10.3pc at a moisture of 12.5pc across a total of 385t.
James Ashmore runs a mixed farm at Mullaghmast, near Ballytore in south Kildare. Most of the land is owned, with a small portion rented.
Tillage is the main enterprise but he also practises winter finishing of both lambs and beef cattle. The main crops grown on the farm are winter wheat, winter barley, gluten-free oats, spring barley, food-grade peas and feed beans.
The winning crop had an average specific weight of 61.3 kph at 15.0pc moisture across 85t and incidentally was a crop of gluten-free oats.
GREEN FEED BARLEY
Peter and Ann Marley farm at Martry near Kells in Co Meath. A full-time civil servant, Peter’s tillage operation consists of a combination of winter and spring barley.
All crops are sown using a plough-based system. A proportion of Peter’s farm is dedicated to grassland from which he produces hay each year, and this is sold to local farmers.
The winning crop averaged a specific weight of 70.4kph, screenings of 1.3pc and protein of 10pc at a moisture content of 14.1pc across a tonnage of 106t.
James French farms approximately 160 acres at Loughgerald near Enniscorthy in Co Wexford. His cropping regime in 2022 was winter barley, both autumn and spring-sown feed oats and spring malting barley.
James’s brother Patrick and their father, William, are also involved in grain production and while they run their businesses independently, they collaborate throughout the year in terms of fieldwork and machinery operation.
The award-winning crop averaged a specific weight of 57.2kph at 16.5pc moisture across a total production of over 89t.
Mark Onions operates a mixed tillage and suckler beef farm outside Portlaoise in Co Laois. The main cereals grown on the farm are spring malting barley, winter wheat and winter barley, preferably for seed whenever possible. Mark generally rents out some of his land for potato growing in order to generate the rotation break required to grow seed crops. Mark is married to Linda and they have two children, John and Olivia. The winning crop of Dawsum winter wheat had an average specific weight of 82.6kph and 9.0pc protein at 12.1pc moisture across 58t.
DRIED FEED WHEAT
Ger and Niamh Leahy operate an intensive tillage farm at Newtownadam, just outside Cahir in south Tipperary. Ger grows a wide range of crops including oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter barley, oats, rye and spring malting barley. Most of his feed wheat and barley are dried and stored on the farm for sale post-harvest. All crops are sown using a plough and one-pass system.
DRIED FEED BARLEY
Larry Flood operates a mixed tillage and suckler calf-to-beef farm on a combination of owned and rented land at Kiltaghan, near Rathangan in Co Kildare.
Larry grows a wide variety of crops on his farm, including winter and spring oilseed rape, winter and spring oats, winter and spring barley and winter wheat. Most crops are established using a plough and one-pass system but some min-till and direct drilling are also practised.
Grains for premium contracts e.g. Cassia barley and food-grade oats are sold green off farm, but all feed grains are dried and stored to be sold post-harvest.
GREEN FEED BEANS
Gormanlough Farms is operated by the Timmons family, Peter, Eileen and Ian.
They farm a combination of owned and rented land near Kilberry and Slane in Co Meath. The main crops grown on the farm are winter and spring barley, winter wheat and feed beans. Much of the barley produced on the farm is used in whiskey production by a local distillery while the beans crop serves as the ideal entry for first wheats. The barley is generally sown using a plough-based system while all the beans and some of the wheat is direct-drilled. The winning crop averaged 27.3pc protein at 18.1pc across 469t.
Paddy Miller farms a mixed tillage and beef farm, along with his son Patrick, a short distance outside Athy in Co Kildare. Paddy’s focus is on growing premium crops and he maximises the quantity of these in his rotation each year.
The farm also utilises the protein aid scheme by growing peas, which has greatly added to the rotation on the farm and provides an ideal entry for seed crops. The winning seed barley crop was a crop of Cassia winter barley that averaged a specific weight of 71.9kph and screenings of 1.9pc at a moisture of 14.2pc across 82t.
GREEN OILSEED RAPE
Edward Mulhall runs a mixed tillage, dairy and beef farm along with his son James in New Inn, Emo, Co Laois. The tillage enterprise is a large-scale, highly intensive operation, growing over 700 acres in total.
The rotation comprises a range of crops including winter barley, winter wheat, oilseed rape (HEAR), fodder beet, gluten-free oats and spring malting barley. The winning crop averaged an oil content of 55.6pc at a moisture content of 7.7pc across 151t. This crop was the High Erucic Acid Rape (HEAR) variety Ergo.