Rising farm input costs: Teagasc’s tillage conference

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In light of Teagasc’s tillage conference, we look ahead to the growth and expansion of Ireland's most carbon efficient sector, the innovations and strategies under way that will support the legislative and environmental challenges underpinning the sectors sustainability.

Heading into Spring 2022,  the tillage sector is amongst many that are facing the challenge of revolutionising their farming practises.  The greatest risk factor coming into the new year is the exponential growth of fertiliser prices and issues within the supply chain. This will see farmers, processors and researchers having to invest wisely, plan ahead and perhaps, find an innovative and more sustainable approach to managing our soil. 

With currently very few mitigation strategies on the table that will assist family farms in how they can tackle these rising input costs, tangible financial supports or strategies that look to offset rising costs are practical steps with which the government and EU commission can look to provide assistance to Irish farms. 

Teagasc’s tillage conference focuses on the research that provides practical steps for farmers to undertake in a bid to reduce the impact of rising farm input costs. Successful trials have been carried out that showed the benefit of replacing compound fertilisers with slurry.  1.75 bags of 10:10:20 chemical fertiliser were replaced by 2,200 gallons/acre of pig slurry, amounting to a saving of €35/acre on fertiliser costs with yields of 3.5 tonne/ acre of spring barley. Although animal manures offer the potential to reduce the impact of high fertiliser prices in the long run, their nutrient value must be determined for N/P/K in order to maximise their impact and cost-effectiveness. 

Successful trials have been carried out that showed the benefit of replacing compound fertilisers with slurry.

The use of organic manures such as chicken litter, farmyard manure and dairy sludge can act as a substitute for chemical fertilisers while also showing promise in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The sowing of cover crops in spring sown areas with the use of direct drilling shows sustainable benefits to the soil nutrient level and structure.  Precision technology on tillage farms improves farm soil structure and the accuracy of fertiliser application, methods such as yield mapping and the variable rate application of fertilisers through the use of organic fertilisers, cover cropping and different establishment methods increase the carbon efficiency of the sector. 

At the forefront of fertiliser discussions is the quality, design and database availability that would ensure fertiliser application is spread evenly across the soil. This will be of major concern to those found using a lower density urea-based product whose careful application will be the only saviour to offset the expense. Products such as protected urea is shown to have both environmental and economic benefits. A programme as such is offering to be €6 to €17 cheaper per hectare when compared to a calcium ammonium nitrate, CAN based programme. The product is treated with a urease inhibitor which reduces both ammonia and nitrous oxide losses, helping to reduce their impact on both air and water quality. All the while showing no differences in grass dry matter yields in kg/ha when compared to CAN.  

The way in which farmers can adapt to future uncertainties underpins the profitability and environmental sustainability of the tillage sector.

The tillage conference makes reference to the benefit of break crops where in contrast to cereals, crops such as oilseed rape, beans or peas have the capabilities of taking up and efficiently using soil nitrogen over the autumn and winter periods whereby coming into the main growing season, the amount of nitrogen required by the soil is greatly reduced. Thus reducing the amount of nitrogen fertiliser that has to be applied without compromising important crop yields.

Finally mentioned was the extensive research into the validation of canopy crop management approaches for nitrogen determination. For tillage farmers undertaking a crop of oilseed rape, its green leaf area index is a key determinant in deciding the amount of fertiliser applied. Ideally a crop with an index of 2.0 that is estimated to take up 100kg nitrogen/ha and a possibility of 30kg nitrogen/h available in the soil mineral stores during the spring when compared to a green leaf area index of 0.6 results in a saving cost of €250/ha on nitrogen fertiliser for the farmer.

The way in which farmers can adapt to future uncertainties underpins the profitability and environmental sustainability of the tillage sector. Following research and advice from the experts should ensure a stable future in light of the current and future legislative and environmental challenges they face.