Malting barley could ‘outperform dairy’ but how do farmers get a share?

Whiskey exports, Irish feed rations and the benefits that the tillage sector brings for the environment are just some of the things that the Irish Grain Growers’ Group (IGGG) has been talking and lobbying about recently.

Bobby Miller, the chairperson of the IGGG, caught up with AgriLand recently. He spoke about what the IGGG has been up to lately and why he thinks that the group was needed, as farming has changed and become more specialised.

“I enjoy the job, for the most part. It’s a challenge. There’s a real necessity for a tillage group and a representative body for tillage in Ireland at the minute.

Farming has changed. Farmers tend to specialise in a particular sector now compared to years ago when there could be three or four enterprises on a farm.

Malting barley

The IGGG has staged a number of demonstrations in relation to malting barley prices.

“I am still deciding if I will sow malting barley this year at all. I’ve definitely decided to cut back on the acreage.

“Malting barley growers are facing into yet another year of confusion when it comes to the details of growing the crop. Currently we don’t know if there is a deal in place or not. There are conflicting messages coming from IFA officials. A deal was signed late last year for 2018, but now negotiations are on-going.

“At this stage, brewing barley needs to be at €220/t to consider it as a premium crop. Teagasc figures put malting barley in fifth or sixth place when it comes to profitability on a farm. It’s a premium crop in name only.”

Grain Growers IGGG
Image source: Shane Casey

Feed and straw price increasing

Bobby is glad to see prices going up for both straw and grain at present.

“It’s good to see the market improving for feed barley.There are reports of a harvest price of €155/t for feed barley. Prices have strengthened in the last couple of weeks; let’s hope the upward trend continues. At present, merchants are actively pursuing grain for this harvest.

“Straw prices will remain strong for 2018, in my opinion. €15-16/bale (4X4 round bale) ex-field will probably be the norm. One thing to keep an eye out for is the UK straw market. It was unexpectedly strong in 2017 which helped to boost prices here post-harvest.”

straw, prices,

Representing the tillage sector

Bobby feels that there are a lot of issues which are not being addressed in the tillage sector.

The distilling industry in Ireland is booming at the minute. The Irish Whiskey Act allows whiskey to be made from a raw material which doesn’t have to be Irish.

“I have to question what we call Irish these days. If I grew malting barley and exported it to a distillery abroad to make whiskey, which would be more Irish? The whiskey made here or the exported grain? Champagne is called champagne because of the region it is from in France.

Bobby thinks that the IGGG is needed as a group to represent tillage farmers.

“There is a whole array of issues that need to be addressed in the tillage sector and we’re not being represented strongly enough, if at all, at times.

“I don’t want to be represented by the IFA anymore as a tillage farmer. There are plenty of decent people in the IFA. My uncle John took part in the famous march to Dublin 50 odd years ago, but we [now] need a specialist tillage group to represent growers. It’s time for it.

“The face of farming has changed in Ireland. We’re not being represented equally across the board now. Young farmers are finding it very difficult to enter into the business. This must be addressed.

“It makes no sense to see basic payments going to inactive farmers. The Basic Payment Scheme money should, in some way, be directed more towards the active farmer.”

Environmental lobbying

The IGGG has been doing quite a bit of lobbying in the past number of months. The environmental benefits of tillage and the opportunity to increase exports and create jobs were all highlighted.

“We met the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture a few weeks ago to speak about the positive impact of the tillage sector on the environment. The members of the committee were pleasantly surprised by what we told them. No other body was highlighting the tillage sector at the hearing.

“CAP reform is up for discussion and the tillage sector should be promoted, but it’s just being swept under the carpet. It has a great role to play in carbon sequestration, as a solution to climate change and in promoting biodiversity.

If we tripled the acreage under malting barley we’d outperform the dairy sector as regards exports.

“That’s one reason alone to invest in the tillage sector. That would also bring high-value jobs to other sectors, apart from farming.”

The IGGG wants to see Irish grain promoted and total Irish rations used in animal feed in this country.

If we promote the use of totally Irish grain rations, it would be a strong marketing tool for new premium export markets; especially in the face of the challenge which is Brexit.

“The debate about GM (genetically modified) is increasing and people are far more aware of where their food is coming from. Why are we allowed to feed people and livestock with GM products yet we as Irish farmers are not allowed to grow GM crops?”

Sustainable future

The group’s main aim is to create a sustainable future in farming for the tillage sector.

“Tillage farmer incomes are poor of late. This, I believe, should not be the case. We are being fed the line that world market prices are low and we must suffer as a consequence.

We as tillage farmers must change our mindset and change the minds of those who have influence.

“Our goal as tillage farmers is to give ourselves a sustainable future and we must question what crops we grow. We must market our high-quality produce in a better way and insist that bodies, like Bord Bia, do the same. We should be looking at how we can add value to what we grow,” he concluded.