“It’s a sector that I’ve been concerned about for some time,” that was how Gerry Boyle started his presentation on the Irish tillage sector at the Irish Tillage and Land Use Society’s (ITLUS’s) conference yesterday afternoon, December 4.

Although he had concerns, Gerry then went on to point out the positives of tillage.

One extremely positive point to come from the Teagasc director was that the tillage sector is the lowest contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in Irish agriculture.

The tillage sector has the lowest allocation of GHGs; the lowest level of GHGs per unit of output. The sector is also the most efficient user of nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P).

On the other end of the spectrum, the Teagasc data showed that dairy has the highest level of GHGs per unit of output and has the poorest level of N and P use efficiency.

Feed imports

In relation to GHG emissions, feed imports were a hot topic and, while Boyle stated that Irish grain is preferable in animals’ diets, he took some criticism from the crowd for what a number of contributors outlined as the promotion of foreign grain in Irish animals’ diets by Teagasc.

In his presentation, Boyle stated that: “Even though our livestock sectors are grass based they do need supplementation and it’s preferable that supplementation is natively grown as long as it is economic to do so.”

Boyle had earlier outlined that 2019 was a “particularly poor year again for the sector” and that “serious issues have to be addressed”.

This is in the same year that maize imports have already hit 1.2 million tonnes (January to September) – on a par with the total (January to December) imported in 2018.

Tillage incomes

Boyle described the high volatility in the tillage sector as a major challenge for cereal producers.

The net margin for the average tillage farmer is really at an appallingly low level and has been consistently for a number of years.

He displayed a graph which pegged the top 20% of tillage farmers in 2018 with a net margin of just over €900/ha, while the average net margin was dramatically lower at approximately €300/ha.

Boyle also showed data on average family farm incomes for tillage farms in 2018 which equated to €40,000, while the top 20% of tillage farms had an income nearer to €80,000.

“We have a big issue here to address and we have to understand what’s going on because we do, absolutely need a cereals sector.”

Looking to the future

Boyle outlined that the development of premium markets is an important part of the tillage sector’s future and listed robust cropping systems, rotations and integrated pest management (IPM) strategies as key activities to carry into the future.

He added that things like collaborative farming may also play a role, while a strategy to reduce imports could include further investigations on wheat for distilling.

Finishing his presentation, he stated: “We’ve got to get the message across to livestock farmers on the value of using domestically grown cereals.”

He also noted that the promotion of Irish cereals may be a job for Bórd Bia.

Conference continues

The ITLUS conference continues today in the Clanard Court Hotel, Athy, Co. Kildare. Registration is from 9:30am.