2020: A Tough Year for Tillage

Image Credit: Luke Thornton

With fields now empty and granaries full, Hannah Woods provides an analysis of a challenging growing year for arable farmers, also covering the season's grain price trends.

2020 has been a year that brought a series of major challenges for Irish crop farmers. The year began with a troubling Winter of wet weather battering the country, falling into a Summer that showed no mercy to either to the arable farmer or the crops they had in the ground. A look back to the end of March, which brought about exceptionally wet weather, the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine extended the exemption to crop diversification meant to be put into action in January 2020. This gave arable farmers the freedom to pick the crops that best suited the unpleasant weather and soil conditions they faced over the upcoming season. Along with this, the plant protection products 2020 saw a change in the availability of products with the use of many rescinded under regulations from the European parliament. 

April saw an increase in temperatures, and consequently, it was hoped there would be favourable growth of crops. The extended period of dry weather allowed significant progress in field work with a soil temperature of above average for the period. For some growers, it was the earliest end to the spring planting season in several years. April brought about a great sense of hope for farmers. May brought with it frost, slowing down the growth of most crops and shortly after, a drought of soils left crops in need of moisture, especially spring crops of wheat and barley. Problematic grass weeds such as blackgrass and bromes established in most counties across the country. This pushed farmers to critically assess their situations and devise aggressive pre-harvest and harvest plans.

Inevitably, for a year of extremes, it turned out that 2020 would have the driest Spring in County Dublin since records began in 1837. In June, the severe impacts of drought were clear to even the untrained eye. The effects of prolonged drought severely affected crops in the Eastern half of the country. In the preliminary harvest estimate, it was expected that the output from the cereal sector was to be reduced by at least €100 million, with a total grain output reduction of 400,000 tonnes. These lower yields and higher screenings caused premium crops to struggle to make it within the tight specifications set by merchants. 

For malting barley, where average base payments settled in the region of  €173.73/t, prices of €186/t were achieved in 2019. With this, however, a large amount of barley originally intended for malting did not make the grade. The end of July brought about the beginning of the Winter cereal harvest in the South, South-East and Midlands. Winter barley was yielding poorly on average coming in at 7.5t/hectare and with straw yields some 50% lower than normal. The South of the country saw better yields of between 9.5-11 tonne/hectare, with a straw reduction of only 20-25%, in areas which received rainfall over the early Summer. With the end of August came the completion of harvest for Winter barley, wheat and oilseed rape along with Spring barley. This stop-start harvest showed the severe effects on crops from the drought of April and May. There was the promise of a hopeful Spring crop harvest with good yield potential, however, the continuation of broken weather drowned out this hope for a lot of farmers.

Pat Farrell, IFA Grain and Horticulture Executive commented that “Ireland has followed similar trends to other countries in the EU with regard to a drop in grain yield and grain fill”. Overall, Europe has seen a 15 million tonne decrease in expected grain yield of wheat and the same of barley, with variabilities in individual countries’ overall yields staggering across the continent. The UK saw a lower overall yield of 145 million tonnes and a greater than usual acreage of Spring crops planted with rain having been expected in August. In countries such as France and Germany, the same outcome was felt and yields suffered across the board.

With the challenging harvest season complete, the possibility of a depressed grain price became the major concern of growers. Be that as it may, many feel Glanbia grain prices have shown a real commitment to grain supplier members. IFA grain committee chairman Mark Browne said: “the Glanbia supplier base was particularly hard hit by the weather issues this season, so it was vital that the company returned prices which supported these growers”. Glanbia member-only prices saw a trading and member bonus of €15/t for all grain, bringing 2020 grain prices up to if not better than Glanbia member prices for 2019. Feeding barley is at €160/t, oilseed rape at €375/t and feed wheat at €181/t. Glanbia announced that “throughout 2020 further strong progress has been made on creating opportunities through a long-term strategy to develop premium contracts for growers”.  We can only hope that privately-owned grain stores did their best to match Glanbia prices.