Amid all the rush and flap in government circles to try and ensure that extra grain and forage is grown to build some resilience into Irish farming, there have appeared few concrete proposals into just how that may be achieved.
Talking about it is easy, but fleshing out these ideals is an altogether trickier task and one that raises some questions concerning the motivation of those giving the impression that it is an overnight solution.
Fundamental decisions required
For a start, there has, as yet, been little insight into just how big an increase is required. Are we talking about a 5%, 10% or a 100% increase, and is that across the board or are cereal crops to be favoured over fodder?
This raises an even more basic question, are we looking to increase this country’s food security or do we wish to simply ensure that the present production pattern, dominated by grass-based systems, remains viable?
Grass plays such an important role because it is something we are particularly good at. We have the climate, the soils, the capital and the knowledge to grow vast quantities of forage, and it is just those factors that mitigate against switching to cereal production.
Calls for more wheat production in a bid to bring greater self sufficiency in foodstuffs completely overlook the fact that wheat suitable for breadmaking does not grow well in Ireland, and should it be attempted, it needs timely harvesting and proper storage facilities.
Even if the climate did permit production of quality wheats, it is doubtful that the infrastructure exists to allow a rapid increase in the area grown.
Corn or horn?
Assuming that the government is intending to swap grass for tillage, it would need to be ascertained as to just what would be required to plant extra cereal crops next season, as it is too late for this one.
No plans can be made until it is decided exactly what the objectives of increasing the tillage area are.
There is a tremendous mismatch between a war in Ukraine that is not yet a month old and the 18 months that will elapse before we see any results from increasing cereal production.
There is an assumption that the 2022 Ukraine harvest will be pitiful and there will not be the 26 million tonnes of wheat available for export as there was in 2021.
Certainly, the surplus available for export is likely to be be greatly reduced, but it is very much the ‘worst case scenario’ that there is none at all, and so far there are few signs that Russia is targeting food growing or production facilities.
We might also remember that continental Europe has experienced wars, invasions and mass displacements of populations throughout its history, the present situation is nothing new in the great scheme of things.
Farmers outside of the the affected regions will just keep on with farming, as they always have done.
Of course there will be disruption to supplies, but we cannot know the extent of that disruption yet. It may well be wise to plan for the worst eventuality but account has to be taken of just what is possible in the way of substitution.
What can Ireland do?
The tillage sector has been lamenting for a while now that the area grown is in serious decline. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), 265,000ha planted were in 2020, this is in comparison to 292,000ha in 2015.
A 10% increase in planting would would bring us back to approximately the 2015 level, so it is not an unreasonable target, although the amount of land committed to tillage would not increase by a significant degree as a total proportion of land under cultivation.
In 2020 tillage accounted for 5.4% of farmed land, a 10% increase would nudge it up to 6%, hardly the dramatic change that is probably envisaged.
To make a difference that will have an impact on self sufficiency a doubling of the land presently under tillage is more likely to be required, and that is a whole new ball game.
Just what this would require in the way of machinery is hard to fathom; there are simply too many variables to arrive at an accurate estimate.
Yet some sort of vision might be possible if we consider just one of the more significant factors – primary cultivation.
If we take 250,000 extra hectares to be placed under tillage as the target for a campaign, which is to be achieved by the conversion of grassland with the plough being the main implement of cultivation, then we can start looking at some numbers.
However, the numbers are going to be vague and subject to all sorts of caveats so they can only act as a starting point for consideration rather than a definitive answer.
The first question to address is how many extra tractors are going to be required to plough up an additional 250,000ha?
We need to make some assumptions of our own at this point. The first two being that there are 60 days open to ploughing in the summer/autumn and that a medium-sized tractor with a four or five furrow plough can cover 12ha (30ac) a day.
The result being that one tractor and plough will cover 720ha in a season. If we are wanting 250,000ha ploughed, then it will require around 350 extra tractors and ploughs to do the work.
Extra ploughs may be a problem
Tractor-wise, this may not be an insurmountable problem as there will be machines available that are not being fully utilised at that time of year, while others will be released by the switch to tillage.
Finding an extra 350 working ploughs and operators comfortable, or even interested, in using them, is a problem that may take a little more working at.
Secondary cultivation will not require quite the effort, say half the number of the ploughing tractors that are working, an extra 175, bringing the total needed to 525. Again, this is probably not unmanageable.
What is unlikely to be available is the required number of drills to neatly lay out the crop for the growing season.
Fertiliser spreaders can be pressed into service as a substitute, but this will require tramlines to be put in at a later date – another operation.
Crop care issues
When it comes to crop care, there are plenty of redundant or poorly utilised sprayers cluttering up barns and hedges, so the physical application of pesticides will be possible, if not very efficient, if sufficient quantities are in stock that is. Sprayer certification may have to be overlooked.
Harvesting and storage are the next two issues and here it is very unlikely that there is the spare capacity to cope with a doubling of the tillage area.
Harvesting requires a combine harvester, there is no immediate way around that fact and combine harvesters tend to retain a value, so over the years they are traded in or sold when renewed.
This results in far fewer surplus machines being present on farms and so there is a great deal less spare capacity. It follows then that harvesting is likely to be carried out in less than optimal conditions, reducing the amount of crop recovered.
Wet crops will also require more drying and here there will be huge bottlenecks and spoilage if there is anything like an adverse harvest period. Where are the drying facilities for all that extra grain, especially in areas that are still predominantly grassland orientated?
Drying also requires an energy source, usually oil derived, and burning diesel, as we are only too painfully aware, is an expensive pastime.
Efficiency reduced, yields depressed
Altogether the call for extra production can only be met to a limited degree. If the situation was to continue indefinitely then farming would adapt, but there are no overnight miracles to be relied upon.
One further factor to be considered is the skills gap. Farming is far more specialised today than many outside of it might imagine. Changing to tillage will require a deployment of knowledge and experience that just doesn’t exist within stock farming.
At a guess I’d suggest that a doubling of the tillage ground may only result in a two thirds increase in production, in the first year at least.
From then on, there is every possibility that the strife in Ukraine will have resolved itself, or the tensions will have greatly diminished, rendering any great push for grain production in Ireland redundant and unnecessary.