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Tillage Update - 10th December

As the year winds down and Christmas nearly upon us, time for reflection or focusing on the future? Looking back at the year gone by it has been very difficult for all. Weather related issues dominated the crop growing year, with a wet start, to drought to storms at harvest, Michael Hennessy ponders

If we consider this with 2018’s weather, is it a sign of things to come? 

Soil management

Reflecting on the practices of farmers who seemed to fair better than their neighbours, it wasn’t the fact that these farmers were necessarily better or worse farmers, much of the success for higher yields was down to management of the soil. Almost all farmers with higher trend yields either had a good rotation or were putting organic manures back into the soil (or both).  Rotations help to keep disease at bay and organic manures can activate the soil microbiome, help water storage, help hold more nutrients  (P, K, S, MG, etc.) and also deliver a small quantity of nitrogen to the crops during times of stress (especially in January and February when growth is slow).

Soil pH, P & K

Achieving high yields is not just about rotations or organic manures; other soil parameters need to be correct also.  Soil pH, soil levels of P and K are of critical importance and are interlinked.

Low soil pH will decrease the availability of all nutrients especially phosphate.  Where soil P and K are at index 1 (very little available to the plant) then no matter how much chemical P and K are applied, the yield of the field will never reach its full potential.  This can only happen when soils are at a high index 2 or above.  The next couple of months are a great time to soil sample and get an idea where your soils are.

The Teagasc soil test service provides the following:

  • map out your fields for testing
  • a trained soil sampler will take the correct amount of samples in the correct areas
  • a trained advisor will interpret the results and make sensible recommendations for action

These recommendations can be converted into a comprehensive plan for the farm using the NMP planner.  This will give you a field by field recommendation and maps to easily determine where the nutrients go through the year. Give your local advisor a ring to arrange to take the soil samples on your farm.

Future Plant Breeding

Looking to the future, as we farm in a maritime climate, the types of varieties we grow have a huge effect on the level of wet weather diseases in crops.  Breeding programmes, which Irish farmers rely on, are based in the UK or Europe and are breeding for the larger markets with selection of varieties for Ireland not necessarily at the top of the list. 

Teagasc, in combination with a number of breeders, are evaluating thousands of parent lines so that a number of highly resistant varieties are selected and used for future commercial varieties.  This process of variety selection and selective breeding has worked well to date.  However the relative slow pace of changes in varieties cannot cope with these new demands by legislators who are looking for a lower use of plant protection products and nitrogen.

Breeding Technologies

Technologies to speed up the breeding process like Genetic Modification (GM) aren’t available to breeders here, despite feed markets being swamping with GM material.  A new tool, called gene editing or Crispr-Cas9, holds huge potential as it can realign existing genes in a plant so that these genes express more or less thereby increasing disease resistance or other desirable traits.  This isn’t available yet as it has been classed in the same category as GM technology by EU legislators however this may change next year as the EU is taking another look at the science.  Hopefully this tool will be available and can be deployed to improve our varieties.

On the latest Tillage Edge podcast, Dr Ewen Mullins, Head of Crop Science in Oak Park, Teagasc  joined Michael Hennessy to discuss and explain the developments in plant breeding and biotechnology.

Ewen briefly mapped breeding developments over the last 150 years before describing the different types of Genetically Modified (GM) techniques in use today. The most used GM technique is transgenics which uses genes from one plant to transform another (these plants would not cross breed in the wild).  He used the example of Golden Rice which used daffodil genes in rice plants to improve vitamin A levels in rice to help deficient populations in Asia.

Ewen described work being done in Teagasc which ranges from developing new GM techniques to growing GM crops but none of this work will result in crops for Irish farmers anytime soon. However Ewen is more hopeful for gene editing or Crispr-Cas9 technologies which could be used in the medium term and when available this technique can quickly improve weaknesses in varieties already in use.

For more episodes and information from the Tillage Edge podcast go to: teagasc.ie/thetillageedge