A new year beckons, so here is the question: Will it be a happy 2022 for Irish agriculture and for the thousands for farmers working within it?
As the old saying goes, farmers can’t control world markets but they can do a lot to influence what actually takes place within the confines of their own farm gates.
As we enter 2022, feed and fertiliser prices are more than challenging. And, of course, there will always be a doubt regarding the prospects for the commodities that farmers actually produce.
In times of uncertainty, the best course of action is to seek the best possible advice that is available. Organisations such as Teagasc, Bord Bia, the banks and all the various farming organisations were established to meet this specific need.
So I would strongly suggest that the services these bodies provide should be availed of in full over the coming weeks.
Fertiliser – to purchase or not? This is the issue that will be uppermost in the minds of every local farmer at the present time.
Prior to Christmas I was pretty nonplussed about this issue, thinking that fertiliser markets might weaken in the New Year. But we now know this will not be the case.
According to the World Bank, China has announced the suspension of fertiliser exports until June 2022, to ensure domestic availability amid food concerns.
For the record, China’s exports of DAP (diammonium phosphate) and urea account for approximately one-third and one-tenth of global trade, respectively.
Also adding to supply concerns is Russia’s recent confirmation that it has imposed restrictions on nitrogen (N) and phosphate (P) fertiliser exports for six months. The decision took effect on December 1, 2021.
Countering this scenario is the prospect of food inflation gathering further pace over the coming months.
If this turns out to be the case, it should result in stronger farm gate returns. Such a scenario, would help soften the blow of high input costs and their direct impact on farm margins.
So, again, the issue comes back to farmers securing all the reliable advice they can get their hands on.
Use of slurry
Included in the answers coming back to them will be the need to make best use of the slurry and animal manures that are produced within their own businesses.
I sense that 2022 is the year when all farmers should really look to get involved in a buying group. Many have already taken this step. But there is still a significant cohort of farmers in Ireland, who have not yet gone down this road.
It’s a very simple principle – joining together within a group immediately increases the buying power of an individual producer manifold. It seems like a win/win scenario to me for all the respective farmers involved.
Another person on the ‘must call’ list for the early weeks of 2022 should be the farm’s accountant.
Among the most informative discussions that I had during 2021 was the one held with the tax specialist, Seamus McCaffrey. Within seconds of engaging me in conversation, he was able to dispel the myth that purchasing fertiliser last autumn could be used as a means of offsetting 2021 income tax bills.
So how will the current climate of enhanced input costs play out within the individual sectors during 2022?
Growers with wheat, barley, oats and oilseed rape already in the ground have very few decisions to take, where these crops are concerned.
Four months into their growing cycle, it is to be assumed farmers will act to ensure that crop yields will be optimised, irrespective of the fertiliser prices and other input costs that confront them during the weeks ahead.
And, of course, the weather will always be the real determinant of how successful a tillage enterprise in Ireland actually turns out.
So is spring cropping the real imponderable as growers look ahead? This may be the case, if the decision is taken to push ahead with spring barley.
But there are other options. Experience gained locally over recent years confirms that we can grow spring peas and beans extremely well in this part of the world. And, as both crops are legumes, the need for bagged N in either case is pretty much zero.
For traditional growers of spring barley there is also the opportunity of turning things up a notch and pushing forward with a malting barley crop in 2022.
Within this context, there is the firm expectation of securing an enhanced price for the end crop. But making this happen is all about getting the agronomy right!
A number of grain growers in Donegal grew malting barley extremely well last year. And I get a sense that Boortmalt, the main purchaser of malting barley across the island of Ireland, would welcome such a development in 2022.
Grass will always remain Ireland’s most important crop. But can we keep up current production levels without such a reliance on bagged fertiliser? In my view, the answer to that question is yes.
Teagasc has already identified the way forward, where N is concerned – use protected urea and spread slurry using lower emission spreading systems (LESS).
Getting the pH value of our grassland soils up through the use of lime is an absolute necessity, given current circumstances. Such an approach will also increase the plant availability of all other soil nutrients. All in all, it seems like another win/win scenario to me.
The other game changer where grassland production is concerned, is the greater use of clovers within sward mixes. We know that such an approach works from both a grazing and silage perspective.
It’s a management practice that acts to improve animal output while drastically reducing the need for bagged fertiliser.
Why more farmers have not taken such an approach remains a true mystery, at least for me. But why stop with two main species within a sward when you can have so many more?
Research carried out at University College Dublin (UCD) has confirmed the tremendous benefits of herbal leys within a grazing scenario.
At a time when there so much pressure on grassland farming, from both an input cost and environmental perspective, one has to think that the potential role of multi-species swards is more than significant as we look to the future.
Compound feed in agriculture
Compound feed costs have also increased sharply over recent months. While some analysts are predicting a possible cooling of world grain markets in the second half of 2022, I feel it is time to review the core role of compound feeds within our grass based sectors.
Let me start with dairy. If any milk producer out there feels that the best course of action is to slash meal feeding levels as early as is possible to freshly calved cows during the year ahead, I feel that such an approach comes within the scope of the ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ adage.
Irrespective of the meal price, there is strong evidence to show that cutting compound feeding levels dramatically to such animals has a major impact in terms of their subsequent fertility and overall performance.
I spoke to a significant numbers of dairy farmers in both 2020 and 2021 who were reporting cows that had reabsorbed foetuses in early pregnancy. Subsequently, many of these lost pregnancies were attributed to cows and calved heifers coming under nutritional stress.
And, of course, cows with any Holstein / Friesian blood in them at all will respond positively to supplementary feeding well into their lactations.
Looking ahead, the main challenge for the beef sector will be that of getting all prime animals finished before they reach 24 months of age. Moreover, all replacement suckler heifers should be calving down for the first time at this same age.
Grazed grass will always be important component of the diet offered to these animals. But it is not the complete nutritional package.
Trials carried out by both Teagasc and College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) have confirmed that weanling calves need continuing access to concentrates in order to optimise rumen development.
The potential to increase Ireland’s sheep numbers is immense. First off, they have an almost zero carbon footprint; secondly they can be maintained on an almost 100% grazed grass diet, year round.
Brexit has delivered an absolute body blow to the British sheep industry. The increased administration costs associated with the export of lamb from England has significantly reduced British lamb shipments to France.
As a result, there is no reason why Irish sheep producers cannot avail of the opportunity these developments is creating for them. It was not by chance that Irish lamb prices remained extremely buoyant throughout 2021.
Government support for agriculture
Agriculture will be centre stage in determining Ireland’s response to climate change. The industry will also continue to play a critically important role at the very heart of the Irish economy.
Without farming, there is no food processing sector. That’s a lot of jobs to be maintained and nurtured for the future.
The Irish government’s role must be to protect the industry and facilitate its future growth. Priority number one in this regard will be to ensure that the CO 26 decision to reduce global methane levels by 30% over the next decade has no impact on Ireland’s ruminant sectors.
There is no real manufacturing base of note on the island of Ireland, which means that production agriculture here may well be brought front and centre into the argument, when it comes to determining how and when national mitigation measures could be introduced.
The Irish government must act to ensure that livestock numbers are not cut as a result of these determinations.
It goes without saying that Irish agriculture should be allowed to benefit from all the income opportunities it can avail of during the period ahead.
In terms of ‘farming for carbon’, this is an aspect of land management that will start to take on a meaningful reality over the coming years.
So should farmers be allowed to establish carbon credits within their businesses and have the opportunity to trade these? Of course they should. And it’s up to the Irish government to ensure that these developments are allowed to take place in the most effective and transparent ways possible.
However, these are still early days. The carbon sequestration potential of local soils has yet to be fully quantified, while the development of carbon calculators is still at a very rudimentary stage.
Common Agricultural Policy
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is a mere shadow of what it once was in terms of delivering real support to European agriculture.
Budgets have been slashed in real terms over the past two decades while, at the same time, the role that CAP measures play in determining how farmers go about their day-to-business, has expanded at an exponential rate.
The current negotiating round is a perfect example of this continuing process. And, to be perfectly honest, the farming organisations here and across Europe should be ashamed of themselves in allowing all of this to happen.
The one bright aspect to the CAP evolution story is Brussels’ growing recognition to the effect that it cannot implement a ‘one size fits all’ approach across 27 members states. E.g., the needs of farmers in Romania will be different, in many ways, to those of the Irish counterparts.
As a result, the EU Commission is now recognising the need to provide individual member states with a degree of flexibility in the way that the core and supplementary CAP measures are implemented.
To be honest, this is the great white hope for Ireland’s farming organisations as they look to secure sustainability for their members in 2022 and beyond. And it’s all about money.
In my opinion, the Irish government has real scope to introduce national measures that will put a genuine safety net in place for the farming sector.
And, in truth, Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue will have to go well beyond the income generated by the carbon tax when it comes to funding these policies.