This has been an extraordinary year for tillage farmers. Input prices this spring reached unthinkable levels, but the option to forward-sell a portion of our harvest 2022 crop was also there when grain prices moved higher.
rain prices have fallen back significantly in the last month, and a lot of grain may end up being sold below the cost of production.
It’s not possible to forward-sell the entire harvest, as it’s impossible to know how a crop will yield and how much of the crop will actually make it into the trailers — difficult weather conditions around harvest can be costly.
If a grain farmer over-sells their tonnage and the price of grain moves up, they can be left with a hefty bill for failing to deliver their agreed contract, so most tillage farmers are cautious on the volume they forward-sell.
Even before the crops are harvested, plans are in place for the next year’s crops to replace them.
Fertiliser costs are playing a large part in crop-rotation plans. Crops with lower input requirements like oilseed rape, beans and oats are being squeezed into crop rotations more than ever.
Due to the high cost of chemical fertilisers, the big question on all tillage farms that sell straw should be whether to chop it or not.
In the same way that other farming sectors have come to learn the nutritional and economic value of their slurry and dung, we need to realise the real value of our straw.
The K value of straw from an average winter wheat crop is now worth €90/ha and the P value an additional €20/ha. That’s just the current worth of P and K for the straw alone.
If the straw is removed, this cost will need to be added to the cost of replacing the P and K off-takes of the grain.
There are additional benefits in adding organic matter to the soil, especially in the tillage sector’s drive to become carbon neutral. Chopping the straw will add 2.4t C/ha, of which 15pc is retained as soil organic carbon.
The new rules forcing tillage farmers to cultivate stubbles within 14 days of harvest — which were signed last March, with little push-back from the farm organisations — have added extra work and cost to an already busy period for tillage farmers.
I spoke with a tillage group recently, and complying with the new regulations will cost them in excess of €80,000 to hire a contractor to cultivate their stubbles.
The pressure to get straw baled in a fit condition and removed from the fields in a normal year is tough enough after the harvest, but having to do it while trying to keep the combines rolling, all inside 14 days is going to be impossible on many farms without hiring additional help.
So why not chop the straw?
The risk of a financial penalty to a tillage farmer’s BPS for not cultivating in time, along with the nutritional value of the straw to the soil, are large financial incentives to chop.
Add to that the reduced labour, diesel and stress around getting straw baled and cleared off fields, especially in a wet harvest with compaction issues caused by increased traffic on field headlands.
Turning on the straw-chopper on the back of the combine is a sensible decision to consider this year to reduce next year’s fertiliser bill, this year’s diesel bill, and avoid a BPS penalty and falling out with customers who fail to clear their straw in time, while also strengthening tillage’s environmental credentials.
Angus Woods is a drystock farmer in Co Wicklow
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