Opinion

Ploughing in straw: What’s all that about?

The decision by Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue to financially support the chopping of straw and its subsequent incorporation into the soil on tillage farms makes little sense to me. In the first instance, there is a market for every bale made in Ireland.

Dairy farmers in Northern Ireland alone – with their commitment to winter milk – could mop up every bale produced on this island.

I know this because I see the lorries that come over from England each year laden with bales that make up for the straw shortfall, once local supplies in Northern Ireland have been exhausted.

It also strikes me that it will be more difficult to bring all forage-based products into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, now that the new Brexit trading regulations are in place. This should create an even bigger demand for home-grown straw across the island of Ireland.

What’s more, product imported from the rest of the UK represents a black-grass threat. This is the last thing Irish grain growers need to be dealing with.

Weight for weight, straw bales are twice and maybe three times the value of baled silage. So why would tillage farmers simply plough in a genuine asset that is worth real money?

What’s more, the argument to chop up straw on its farm of origin makes little sense from an environmental point of view. If it’s sold on for either feeding or bedding purposes, it stills ends up back in the soil, country of the manure and slurry that are eventually produced.

Would it not make more sense to carry out research that would help identify cereal varieties that produce straw with enhanced feeding values? By taking this approach, it would add more value to the overall cereal crop produced by tillage farmers.

There is a strong argument to be made for expanding Ireland’s tillage sector. The country needs more home-produced grain and – for that matter – more straw.

I don’t know enough about the direct agronomic benefits of incorporating straw prior to establishing a subsequent crop. Such practices might reduce the tillage farmer’s potash and phosphate requirements to some extent. But surely a straw/soil mulch would be a ‘slug paradise’, particularly during a wet growing season.