By: Richard Hackett
Date: August 31st 2016
Source: The Independent.ie
Normally at this time of year, while the harvest is still being wrapped up, thoughts rapidly turn to the next cropping season.
However, this is no ordinary season. The 2016 crop yields are okay, harvest conditions are as volatile as ever and prices are taking a hammering. On the surface, there's nothing new there.
But for the fourth year on a row, in an era of such high production costs, the accumulation of these three issues require some level of navel gazing before the plough and cultivator can be pulled out of the nettles for another season's work.
I think we are running down a cul-de-sac with crop production in Ireland and at some stage, it has to stop.
The two biggest issues as I see it are ever-increasing production costs and a yield plateau. These factors are on a collision course with the grower left to pick up the fallout when they collide.
Central to both these issues is the way we manage our land resources. We have severe drainage, fertility and rotational issues on a lot of the land we farm and the land tenure system that we have let develop shows no sign of addressing these issues.
There are many stories of times past where farmers and their staff spent the winters 'digging ditches'.
Their efforts created very productive land in otherwise unproductive areas. The ditches that they dug are still there, but even though we have machinery in which to maintain the work that they did by hand, many of us don't even bother to do that anymore.
When a parcel of land is sold, it is notable that more often than not the first thing that moves in is a tracked excavator that spends weeks clearing scrub, cleaning open drains and getting hedges back into shape.
The results are often spectacular in terms of productivity. I would suggest that there is a lot of land in crop production requires this treatment, but because of the land tenure system, lack of income from production and sheer resistance to change, this is not happening.
Land is getting wetter, more difficult to work and over time production costs per tonne are increasing from the double whammy of higher costs and lower yields.
The other issue is basic soil fertility. Lime level usage has dropped hugely and low soil pH is becoming a significant factor in terms of limiting output.
Liming land is a short-term cost for medium-term benefit, but the reasons outlined above - in particular the land tenure system - often do not allow for this cost either. As regards base phosphorus and potassium levels, again these are dropping and having a severe impact on crop output.
This is infuriating as one of the main issues that customers for our produce have is excess nutrients, but the circle is never really squared.
Lack of tenure is also affecting our ability to increase productivity through rotation. Weeds and diseases related to rotation, such as wild oats, sterile brome, take all, clubroot or PCN, are real yield robbers or require high cost inputs to manage.
Crops like oilseed rape, beans, oats or even short term ley are not great income earners in their own right, but over the course of a four or five-year rotation, will allow for more stable and consistent yields in all crops.
There is no reason, especially given the protein payments, not to include a break crop in a rotation, but the opportunity to embark on such a medium term objective is often not there.
The only way these problems can be addressed is by growers themselves.
Many attempts have been made in the past by authorities, grower representative or advisory organisations to address the issue of short term rental.
But until growers at an individual level act now by taking the initiative to walk away from expensive, non-productive or worn-out land, landowners will not have to react by dropping rents or investing in their asset to make it more attractive.
Granted there are entitlements issues - if everyone drops rented land, the market for leased entitlements will drop.
Having land to justify machinery is always another argument put forward. But paying exorbitant land rent to justify expensive machinery or to keep ever-declining entitlement values does not make a viable business, or a viable industry. Renting poor land for crop production is a fruitless exercise.
As an industry, there is little point in looking for sympathy or subsidy from anyone if the current prices for rented land is maintained.
Richard Hackett is an Agronomist based in North County Dublin and is a member of the ITCA and ACA
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