Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Transport costs may be a problem but straw is versatile enough to remain in demand

John Shirley

Our abode sits alongside the busy, noisy N80. This traffic artery connects the southeast to points west, northwest and now, with the M9/M7 open, to the North as well.

I marvel at the endless loads of straw that travel this route and wonder about the destinations for such huge volumes of the stuff.

Is the straw going directly to another farm? Is it going to a mart? Often I've seen loads of straw parked in marts across the west on a sales day. Or is the straw going to the premises of one of the many straw traders that have sprung up across the country? Straw creates lots of activity.

But then again straw is a most versatile material. Apart from its use as bedding for livestock, it can be used as a livestock feed, as a fuel, as insulation, as a mushroom compost, as a soil nutrient, even as barriers or chairs at a function. I'm told that many a rural romance started, and maybe ended, in a straw stack.

The major drawback with straw is that it's such a bulky material. Storing straw under a roof is expensive. Moving it around is expensive. Straw which originates in Wexford, costing €12 to €14 per 4x4 round bale, will cost at least 50pc more by the time it arrives in Kerry or Mayo. And with the cost of diesel rising almost by the day, transporting straw will become an even bigger factor. I take my hat off the livestock farmers in the west and North who can afford to buy straw at such prices and still stay in business.

Of the straw passing my gate I notice that an increasing proportion of the loads are the large rectangular bales. The small square bales have become very scarce even though a few of them are awful handy to have around the place.

Round bales throw off some water in the field and are easily rolled out at bedding time, but they are not efficient users of space either on a lorry or in a store. Also, round bales stacked in a shed are a hazard. Fatalities, both human and bovine, have arisen from columns of round bales toppling over. Tragedies have also occurred from humans and animals getting stuck in the spaces between stacked round bales.

In Ireland, straw is primarily traded by the bale. So much is quoted for the 4x4 round bale, for a rectangular bale or the large quadrant bale. But how much straw is in a bale? How tightly is it packed? There is a temptation for sellers to go for more bales with less straw per bale. The answer here is to sell straw by weight rather by the bale.

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But weight alone is not the full answer. Extra weight can come from having damp straw and damp straw is musty and dangerous. I notice that the major straw traders are now equipped with probes which give an instant reading of the moisture level deep into the straw bale. Ideally straw should be under 12pc moisture. Local straw baling contractor Paul Murphy also uses a moisture meter in the field when baling. If the moisture is 12pc or less it is baled with no additive. From 12 to 15pc moisture an additive called BIO-Hay is claimed to keep the straw mould free. Above 15pc moisture straw is too damp for baling.

When it comes to housing cattle, especially fattening bulls, the comfy straw bed is the Rolls Royce option. Farmers who have invested in straw choppers tell me that straw usage is cut by half when the stock are bedded on chopped material. The chopped straw forms a sort of deep litter effect and the dung from this bedding can be spread immediately from the shed.

Very many Irish farms now have slatted sheds, but I notice that with the swing into bull beef, straw bedding is making a comeback.

In Scotland, slatted floors never caught on. They continue to use huge amounts of straw which is traded in price per tonne. Brian Pack, a consultant to the Scottish Government who was in Ireland recently, said that the price of straw bedding was now driving Scottish farmers out of suckler cows. At the time straw was trading at over £100/t and rising. He said that one of the factors driving up straw price was the demand from carrot growers. Rather than lifting and storing them, carrots are now being left in the soil for the winter with a thick layer of straw on top to insulate them from frost damage.

Much of the straw being traded, especially loads going to Northern Ireland, is used as feed. Keenans have long promoted chopped straw as a vital fibre in the diet of ruminants. Straw promotes rumen activity and by slowing the rate of passage the feed is used more efficiently. There is also a greater absorption of minerals and trace elements when the dung is not so loose.

As a fuel, it is reckoned that 2.5kg of straw equates to one litre of oil. Straw pellets are usable in central heating boilers and as oil gets dearer this option will become more attractive.

The new emphasis on soil organic matter will force some tillage farmers to shred the straw and incorporate it back into the soil. High fertiliser price also pushes growers in this direction.

The recent mild weather has dulled the demand for straw in Ireland but I still see loads travelling daily up the N80.

Some traders are looking at exporting straw to Britain. The demand is there but the cost of transport is the issue.

When grain prices were on the floor in 2008 and 2009, growers were mighty glad of the straw. They'll be banking on demand for this commodity continuing into the future.

Indo Farming