In last week’s budget, Minister for Agriculture, Charlie McConalogue, dedicated €10 million of the €79 million set aside for agri-environmental schemes to the tillage sector.

The measure that has been announced is that tillage farmers will be paid to chop straw on their farms and this may act as a pilot scheme which could then see the measure used as part of an agri-environmental scheme under the next Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

The announcement will be a welcome one. This measure can feed our soils. With proper management, straw incorporation can have a really positive effect of soil biology, soil structure and, over time, soil organic matter levels.

However, it should also be noted that chopping straw can result in nitrogen becoming locked up, so good management is needed and where straw is chopped each year will have to be considered.

Keeping your carbon to nitrogen ratio right will be key to this scheme’s success.

Other issues can also arise with establishment if straw is not spread evenly across fields. Older combines may not have a chopper so will need to be fitted where the measure is going to be taken up.

Increase in winter barley area

In recent years, crops that produce large amounts of straw have been growing in area. Winter barley area has increased dramatically.

Since the introduction of the crop diversification requirement and the protein payment the total area under barley has declined. However, winter barley area has shot up. Winter barley crops can produce significantly more straw than spring barley crops.

The majority of tillage farms grow barley on their farms and so chopping a percentage of this would see the majority of tillage farms getting the option to benefit from the measure. However, many farmers who sow a small amount of spring barley on mixed farms are unlikely to chop as they will keep the straw for their livestock.

The table below shows approximate areas of barley sown (both winter and spring) from 2013 to 2020 in this country. The area planted to winter barley this autumn is expected to return to 2019 levels.

Data source: CSO

Chopping oat straw will most likely involve little thinking for many, while many farmers have a market for their wheaten straw and relatively good contracts are available from composters.

Chopping winter barley straw can also further improve soil biology by allowing farmers to sow a catch crop immediately after harvest as straw will not have to be turned, baled or loaded. This can also have reduced compaction as the bales will not have to be removed and there will be less heavy traffic on the soil.

Stabilise the market

The measure has the ability to stabilise the straw market, without inflating straw prices dramatically. In recent years, straw has been a difficult income stream for farmers. Wet weather has decreased yields and created more work, while the price has been inconsistent.

This year in particular saw demand fall. Less straw was available, some estimated 50% less straw was produced this harvest compared to last year, but the appetite was not there to buy straw from beef farmers – the main market for barley straw.

What the Department of Agriculture said

At present the scheme is still under construction and the department has told AgriLand: “Increasing the soil organic carbon levels of arable soils has been identified in the Teagasc MACC [marginal abatement cost curve] curve as a carbon sequestration action.

The purpose of the measure will be to encourage tillage farmers to increase soil organic carbon levels by chopping and incorporating straw from cereal crops. This will sequester carbon in tillage soils.

“The incorporation of straw will also have a positive impact on soil biology and soil workability. This will further improve the environmental sustainability of the tillage sector. The details of the measure will be drafted and made available in due course following consultation with stakeholders.”