Ireland’s tillage area may well shrink over the coming years as dairy expands, according to UCD’s Dr Tom McCabe.

“But we still want to see an increase in the overall output of our tillage sectors,” he said.

“And this will mean achieving a combination higher yields and improved crop quality.”

McCabe was speaking at Alltech’s 2015 Crops Open Day. He said that genetic improvement has attributed to 50% of the yield increases recorded in tillage crops over the past century.

“This progression will be maintained, particularly for oilseed rape and barley.

“Hybridisation has been used to great effect, where both these crops are concerned. The rate of yield progress being achieved with rape is currently in the region of 2% per annum. And Irish barley growers are really seeing the benefits which the winter new hybrid varieties offer this year.

“While the harvest is still a few weeks off, there is ample evidence to confirm that the new hybrids are demonstrating tremendous vigour and stress resistance in growing conditions that are far from favourable.”

In contrast, McCabe admitted that wheat yields have plateaued.

“We need a breakthrough, where wheat is concerned,” he said.

“Hybridisation has not worked. As a consequence, the vast majority of new wheat varieties are being created on the back of traditional plant breeding techniques. But current varieties have the inherent ability to yield up to 20t/ha. The challenge is to convert this potential into reality.

“We are also seeing a significant variation in wheat yields from farm to farm. Here in Ireland specific fields can yield up to 15t/ha with the average coming in at 10t/ha.”

McCabe regards malting barley as a key growth area for Ireland’s tillage sector, confirming that both significant yield and grain quality improvements can be achieved.

“Malting barley crops are current averaging 7.5t/ha to 8t/ha,” he said

“However, this figure can be raised to 10t/ha. One way of achieving this is through the more tailored application of fertiliser nitrogen, with the aim of balancing crop yield and grain protein percentage.”