Are Ireland’s ‘tillage barons’ about to become an endangered species?

This week’s Oireachtas report on the future of Irish tillage was extremely timely.

However, in my opinion, it failed to address the fundamental weakness of the business plans followed by a significant number of Ireland’s largest cereal growers.

And it’s this – renting large acreages of land; and expecting to take a commodity price for the grain produced; is the height of absolute folly.

Ireland is not the east of England where growers have access to large areas of owned-land or, alternatively, the land that they need can be secured on the back of relatively cheap, long-term, tenancy agreements.

It goes without saying that Ireland needs a vibrant tillage sector. But its future must be built around a business model that sees more direct contact between cereal growers and the livestock farmers – who will directly utilise the grain that is produced.

Malting barley

We also need to see a tillage sector that is more focused on producing value-added crops. Malting barley is a case in point.

There have been repeated suggestions from malsters to the effect that the acreage of malting barley grown in Ireland can be significantly expanded.

However, this will only happen if growers can expect a realistic price for the grain they produce. This is not the case at present.

It is my understanding that demand for malting barley is increasing exponentially.

The inexorable growth of the craft brewing sector is a key factor in this regard. But, despite all of the good news, we have still ended up with the vista of malting barley growers out protesting over recent weeks.

Poor weather at harvest has blighted the prospects for tillage over many years.

One could say that our unpredictable climate is the volatility factor that creates a fundamental challenge for all cereal growers.

Yet, in a good year, Irish tillage farmers can produce yields that match, or even surpass, those achieved in all other European countries.

Across in the United States, growers get around the weather issue by paying into a crop insurance scheme, which is co-funded by the government.

Tillage scheme

Surely, steps of this nature could be taken here in Ireland, to remove the weather factor from the production equation that faces cereal producers on an annual basis.

Given what seems to be our changing climate; we also need an agronomic response to Ireland’s tillage production challenge. Work has been done in parts of the UK regarding the feasibility of growing cereals on raised beds.

Is it not time that we really looked at measures of this nature as mainstream crop management options for Ireland?