It is that time of year again when we look back on the year that was, and how Irish farming fared, generally speaking. It is time for my 2021 review!
For the most part, it has been an uplifting year for farming in Ireland. But, change is coming for the industry.
And, across a broad spectrum of issues, the time for talking is over: decisive action will soon be required.
The year just ending has seen the debate on climate change take centre stage, not just within farming but across society as a whole.
Personally, I agree with many commentators when they say that farming for carbon should be developed as another income stream for production agriculture and our rural areas. And, we must never forget the significance of food security, moving forward.
Protecting the environment and feeding people are two sides of the same coin.
I would be pretty confident that most farmers in Ireland will look back on 2021 with a fair degree of satisfaction. The weather played its part and all of the main food commodity markets gathered strength as the year progressed.
In fact, farming entered this year in a pretty robust condition. The previous year had seen vast swathes of the general public reacquaint themselves with home-produced food, as a consequence of the Covid-19 lockdown. And, this welcome momentum was carried through into 2021.
But how did matters actually progress down on the farm over the past 12 months? Ask any farmer to make a New Year wish and, invariably, he or she will be asking for a decent year’s weather ahead. And this was, undoubtedly, the case for Ireland’s tillage sector in 2021.
Throughout my lifetime, I have witnessed so many occasions when growers had developed huge potential in their crops throughout the spring and early summer only to have their hopes dashed entirely by atrocious harvest weather.
Thankfully, 2021 was one of those years when cereal production became, for the most part, a care-free experience. All crops – winter and spring – established well. Follow-up field work was carried out in timely fashion. And, of course, the sun kept on shining throughout the harvest period.
The end result of all this was the generation of near record yields, for both grain and straw.
And, of course, the real icing on the cake was the strengthening of global cereal markets throughout the entire 2021 growing season.
The final production figure came in at 2.3 million tonnes with winter barley and oat crops performing extremely well.
It’s not often that cereal growers can avail of both very high yields and excellent prices at the same time.
But such was the case in 2021.
And, the news just kept on improving given the excellent planting conditions that were enjoyed by those cereal producers committing to winter barley, oats and wheat for 2021/2022.
Tillage has a lot to offer farming throughout Ireland. This idea that there is not a significant acreage of good tillage ground available to the industry is a bit of a myth.
Back in the 19th century, farmers here grew large areas of oats. Horses, then, were the powerhouse of the farming industry and they had to be fed.
I have a vague recollection from student days that oats can be the most challenging of all cereal crops to grow. So, if we could achieve such high levels of grain output more than 100 years ago, then why not now?
It’s important that Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue, continues to support the tillage sector. The protein scheme is an excellent example of what can be done in this regard.
Crops like field beans and peas – legumes – have everything going for them. They are a much-needed spring planted option for cereal growers. Moreover, these legumes need very little fertiliser nitrogen to secure optimal yields.
And, of course, the market for home-grown protein is, potentially, enormous.
Potato growers also had a good year in 2021. The tipping point for spuds is always the harvest. It is my understanding that the vast bulk of this year’s main crop is now in store and tuber quality is excellent.
Let’s just hope that potato prices remain strong from now through to the spring and early summer of next year.
Grass is, and will always remain, the main crop grown in Ireland. Our land and climate are perfectly suited to the growing of this unique forage.
While every other country around the world plays at producing pasture – including New Zealand – we, here, can produce meaningful tonnages of beef, milk and lamb from grass. This is our ‘ace in the pack’ and we must never let it be taken away from us.
Apart from the dry spell that hit back in July, 2021 will go down as a very satisfactory grass-growing year. This was particularly so at the back end. The rains that fell in August – after the intense heat of July – boosted sward growth rates well into the autumn.
What’s more, ground conditions held up well into October and early November. In turn, this allowed beef and dairy producers to keep animals out well beyond their normal housing dates.
A shorter winter (let’s hope) serves to reduce livestock farms’ reliance on expensive concentrates feeds, while also taking the pressure off slurry stores.
While the 2021 grazing season ticked almost all of the boxes available to it, the same cannot be said where silage is concerned.
I am hearing that mycotoxin contamination is a real issue within many silage clamps across the country at the present time. Farmers can address the problem by including binders in the feed they offer their stock.
But what is causing the problem in the first place?
Laboratory testing has also confirmed a very definite north-south split, where the mycotoxin issue is concerned. Surveys confirm a significant number of problem silages in Northern Ireland, and parts of Munster.
The problem with mycotoxins is that they cannot be seen with the naked eye, nor will they show up in a standard silage analysis. But, they will impact, big time, on animal performance and health if the organisms that produce them manage to gain a foothold within silage clamps and grain store.
Beef and milk returns continued to gain strength throughout 2021. And, there seems to be no downturn coming in farm gate prices as we look towards 2022.
So much for the good news! The downside for beef and dairy producers over the past 12 months has been the continuing focus by environmentalists – and governments – on the methane-producing power of ruminant livestock.
Matters came to a head at November’s COP-26 event when world leaders agreed a net 30% reduction in global methane levels by 2030.
So, it’s time for a reality check. Our farming and food industries have already lost too much ground to the environmental lobby, where climate change is concerned. Our reliance here on a grass-based production system should always have been accepted as a given.
Had this been the case, the arguments concerning our reliance on ruminant livestock production would never have had to be made in the first place. And, this is a reality that our politicians should be thinking long and hard about over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
So let’s not compound the problem by dragging our beef, dairy and sheep industries into the COP-related methane decision.
The case for a methane exemption to be secured for Ireland’s dairy, beef and sheep sectors is an easy one to make. Countries with large oil, coal, gas and manufacturing sectors can – I’m told – quite easily tweak these industries to meet the guidelines established at COP-26.
This is not the case here in Ireland. Production agriculture is our largest ‘manufacturing’ industry. If it is directly exposed to the now agreed 30% methane reduction target, the potential impact on cattle numbers is obvious. Such a move would also have a very direct bearing on the scope and output of the Irish food industry.
Meanwhile, Ireland’s pig and poultry sectors have had to endure a very challenging 12 months.
Farm gate prices have come under pressure while the second half of the year saw all input costs rocket. The end result of all this has been a significant squeezing of margins.
Underpinning all of this, in my opinion, is the need to deliver sustainable, long-term farm gate prices.
And it’s up to the EU and the Irish government to make this a reality
If sustainable prices can be achieved, farmers will then be in a position to commit to the future of their businesses in a meaningful way. Climate change alone will require huge investment to be made across every facet of agriculture in order to future proof the industry.
The Common Agricultural Poloicy (CAP) negotiations continued apace in 2021. The year ended with Minister McConalogue confirming government buy-in for the strategic plan for which Brussels’ approval will now be sought.
I agree with all of Ireland’s farm organisations, who point out that the plan does nothing to encourage food production in this part of the world.
This approach to farming policy is tantamount to being sacrilegious. Given all of Ireland’s natural resources, it is one of the countries best placed to produce food on a sustainable basis, anywhere in the world. Meanwhile, the global population is set to rise inexorably over the next three decades.
But, let’s forget about the big picture stuff for a moment. Irish agriculture must be funded properly if it is to develop for the future. And if CAP can’t supply the money required, then the Irish government will have to come up with additional national funding streams.
As far as I am aware, there is sufficient scope within the current EU rules to allow this to happen.
Every day is a new day
But, let’s not end this piece on a downer. This year has brought out the very best across farming throughout Ireland. The weather played its part in allowing farmers, for the most part, to get on with the jobs they just love doing.
The problem is that we can only hope for – and not expect – a repeat of the same in 2022.