Tillage focus: Balancing winter sowing with an on-farm enterprise

Francis, Gavin and Diarmuid Owens are tillage farmers in Ballycullane, just outside Athy, Co. Kildare.

The brothers sow mostly winter wheat along with some winter and spring barley. They also run an on-farm business – namely Straw Chip.

It is a farm-based business that specialises in adding value to products derived from straw.

We mostly take in wheaten straw. We grind it down; sterilise it; clean it; and bag it into 18-20L bags. Our main customers are poultry and dairy farmers, who use it for bedding.

The brothers are always looking for ways to improve their farm; from starting the straw chipping business to applying chicken manure to growing hybrid barley varieties. They have increased their production and maximised their profit by making changes.

AgriLand caught up with Francis Owens, to see how sowing was going, while preparing a field for winter wheat.

Planting
Francis Owens and Kevin Kirwan take a break from ploughing at Ballycullane, Athy

Chicken manure

The entire farm is covered in chicken litter at a rate of 3t/ac before sowing. The Kildare farmer pointed out holes, made by earthworms, on top of the soil in one of the fields that was being ploughed.

He puts the high levels of earthworm activity down to the chicken litter that is applied on their farm.

“We are using a lot less artificial fertiliser. We can see the benefit in the crops – they’re certainly better. It’s definitely improved our soil structure,” he added.

Planting

With the weather back on track he is currently planting winter wheat. Owens was happy to report that all of the winter barley was sown.

“The winter barley is in a fortnight now. We have Bazooka, Quadra and Infinity. For us, the straw on the hybrids is a good bit stronger and stiffer.

The stiffer straw in the hybrid varieties suits us as we’re grinding it in the mill for straw chippings. Our yields are always a little bit better; maybe by 0.25t/ac.

Owens was happy with the ground conditions while sowing, saying: “Ground conditions are just about there. We grow a bit of spring barley as well but the bulk of our farm is in winter wheat – the straw mills better than barley straw.”

planting
Jamie Shaughnessy sowing winter wheat on Owens’ farm

He was planting ‘Lumos’ at a rate of 165kg/ha and normally aims for 250 seeds/m². Other winter wheat varieties that will be planted this year include: JB Diego; Lili; Costello; Garrus; and Bennington.

“A lot of our ground is damp and heavy so we grow winter wheat – it can take the tougher conditions a lot better,” he claimed.

Weed and aphid control

Owens plans to apply a pre-emergence weed spray this year when ground conditions allow. “Using ‘Redigo Deter’ allows us to do this [spray pre-emergence] and save a pass with the sprayer, as we don’t need to apply an aphicide,” he stated.

If we spray now the ground conditions are quite good – you’re not making tracks, especially when the ground is damp. It’s also easier to kill the weeds.

“When we’re sowing with Redigo Deter dressed seed we’re covered until the end of November with an aphicide – by that time temperatures should be cold enough to inhibit aphid activity.”

Owens has been using Redigo Deter for four or five years now. Before, crop yields weren’t consistent. However, since the addition of this dressing and the application of the chicken manure, the crops have become very uniform.

“That’s what we’re putting it down to, because the crop husbandry hasn’t changed. The soil fertility has come up because we’re applying chicken litter,” he concluded.

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