Tillage focus: Coeliacs celebrate as combines roll

Glanbia’s gluten-free oats business has grown over the past five years. AgriLand visited a field of the niche crop being harvested last week on Doyle’s farm near Tullow, Co. Carlow, and spoke to Glanbia’s Mariea O’Toole.

The supply chain controller has to be meticulous in her work to produce an end product that is free from gluten and suitable for coeliacs to consume.

Oats are naturally free from gluten. It’s the volunteers that can occur in a cereal rotation that contaminate the crop. The key is to keep the crop clean from the start.

It’s a tight ship, everything is controlled by Glanbia, including: the seed; agronomy; crop inspections; harvest; and transport.

“Glanbia is always looking for premium crops and scope for opportunities in the market. It hadn’t been done before in Ireland, so they just said they’d try it,” Mariea explained.

First to take the challenge

There was a steep learning curve in the first two-to-three years to get the purity needed in the crop.

“We needed to propagate our own seed to meet the standards that the department has, as well as our own gluten-free standards. So now, we grow the seed and treat it the same as we treat a food-grade, gluten-free crop.

“We were growing it after cereal crops and break crops at the start, but that produced too many volunteers in the gluten-free oat crop. Once we figured out what we were doing and were managing it properly, we got the seed right. That’s when we decided to go from a trial to the real thing.”

Management is key. On this, Mariea said: “We manage every step along the way. The drill has to be spotless; it’s our own seed and Glanbia agronomists manage the crop. We do our own inspections during the year to make sure everything is going OK.

“If there are volunteers in the crop they’re pulled. We’re at the stage now where the crops are getting cleaner and cleaner. We’ve gone on a very steep learning curve; we’re still learning.

“The agronomy programme is the same as conventional oats and we’ve improved drastically on that. Oats were always a dreaded crop. We had a post-graduate student when we were starting out and a PGR (plant growth regulator) programme came out of that research.

“We generally don’t have issues with lodging in the gluten-free oats anymore and we’re following break crops. If you’re going to see problems, you’ll see them in the richer soils.”

Rotation

Rotation is very important in order to keep volunteer cereals out of the oat crop. Oats are sown after a break crop like grass or oilseed rape. The number of growers changes from year-to-year, as land becomes available for oats in the farmers’ crop rotations.

“Any non-cereal crop is OK beforehand. Oilseed rape is probably the most difficult to deal with purely because it goes in so quickly after harvest.

“We normally have between 40 and 50 growers, but it depends on rotation because oats are in a one-in-four year rotation. Some years we have a much bigger acreage than others. We have the same bunch of growers every year, but some farmers fall in and fall out because of the rotation.

“Ideally, we want less growers and bigger acreages because of the logistics involved in transporting and harvesting machinery.

Every year we’re looking for growers, but there are a lot of things to be taken into account. We want clean ground; we don’t want ground that’s covered in wild oats. That’s a no-go area really.

“Location, the size of the field, access to that field and parking for the lorries all need to be taken into account. There’s an awful lot to be covered for us to take on a grower.”

The growers are all based in counties Kildare, Laois and Carlow. They are within close proximity to Ballitore, where all the gluten-free oats are screened and dried.

Gluten-free combines

The farmers growing the crops do not harvest or transport the grain. Glanbia has invested in two combines and two chaser bins (used only for gluten-free oats) to do this job; it would be very difficult to clean down a combine and be certain that it is free from gluten.

A grower wouldn’t have time to clean a combine in between cutting other crops. We’ve tried cutting with another combine and the contamination was massive.

Once the two combines enter the field, they stay cutting in order to get to the next location promptly. Two chaser bins empty the combines and fill the lorry trailers.

This benefits the farmer as it immediately takes out the cost of harvest and transport. A farmer who has gluten-free oats can cut another crop on the day that the oat crop is being harvested.

Mariea is head of logistics at harvest and – in a normal year – it’s not an easy job. Organising combines to cut the crops is difficult, but the dry weather this year has made the job a bit easier.

“This year is a dream because there’s no pressure; normally it’s a logistical nightmare. It figures itself out; but when you’re in the middle of acres with rain on the way, it can be difficult.”

The oats travel in gluten-free trailers to the intake point at Ballitore.

“It’s screened and dried in Ballitore before it goes to the mill in Portlaoise. The lorries that we use don’t carry any other crops during the harvest. During the year, there is a dedicated trailer for gluten-free.”

Harris Transport delivers grain from the farms in dedicated gluten-free trailers. Alan Davis was on duty when AgriLand visited

The final test

There is no room for contamination at intake, but there is also no room for rejection.

“We have a Q-sorter in Ballitore, which counts out the grains and spits out anything that isn’t oats. That’s our fool-proof machine.

“Then we use an Elisa test at the end of the process in the mill, which makes sure that gluten levels are less than 20ppm (parts per million) of gluten.

“When you’re dealing with true coeliacs, they can’t afford to get a contaminated product. We produce our oats to less than 10ppm.”

Glanbia hires a Claas Lexion 670 (pictured above) and a Claas Lexion 570. The former was driven by Jeremy O’Toole

The oat mill

The oat mill operates almost all year round in Portlaoise; it has a capacity of approximately 14,000t/year.

“The food-grade oats have significant capacity for export to US and European consumer markets. Those contracts have monthly orders. The only down time would be for cleaning, which would have to be done anyway.

“The food-grade contract that we have is for Barra oats only; we use that variety for the gluten-free oats as well to avoid contamination anywhere else. If gluten-free wasn’t making the mark in the beginning, we could use it for food-grade oats.”

As the food-grade oats aren’t gluten-free, there needs to be a full clean down between both crops in the mill.

“The full clean down takes a week. Every inch is cleaned. It’s easy to do when it’s just oats. At any time, there are only oats going through the mill, so contamination is going to be minimal.”

The market

Glanbia sells the gluten-free oats as an ingredient rather than a product. It does not produce a packaged product.

“Glanbia Nutritionals would be our biggest customer (Europe). We have other companies that we deal with that have grown their tonnage since we started.”

Harvest 2018

“Yields are back a bit this year,” Mariea stated.

Quality is really good considering the year. Bushels are around 55-56 and up to 58. Moistures are coming in at around 15-16%.

Farmers are being paid a premium over the oats produced for animal feed, while also getting the crop harvested and transported by Glanbia.

“Anyone that has it on their farm will say it’s the most profitable crop on their farm. They’re very grateful. They appreciate what Glanbia is trying to do. We are trying to move away from growing feed grain and into a niche market.

We’re very particular. There’s nobody doing what we’re doing with the closed chain. There’s no step along the way where we don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re not in control.

“It’s a massive achievement and a massive step in the right direction,” she concluded.