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Thriving in Volatile Times - Teagasc National Tillage Conference

The start of 2011 sees the tillage industry in a much better financial position than at the same time last year. World markets are finely balanced and poor harvests elsewhere in the world resulted in significant price increases as harvest 2010 approached, a development that none of the market experts predicted. Whilst this was welcome it is a good example of the volatility in prices that farmers and the Irish industry must cope with now. At this year’s Teagasc National Tillage Conference, which will take place at the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow on Thursday, 27 January, strategies to deal with volatility in all areas of production will be presented.

John Spink, Head of Crop Science Department, Teagasc said: "Traditionally most Irish grain has been sold green off the combine, which has left growers particularly vulnerable to price volatility. This year is really the first year where the opportunity to sell grain in advance of harvest has been widely available to all growers, offering the opportunity to know the value of the harvest either before drilling, or fixed during the life of the crop. Advanced sales have been available to farmers in the UK for many years, but how do they decide when to sell or not to sell?" Mark Wood is a farm manager from the west of England, farming in conditions not dissimilar to those in Ireland. At the Teagasc National Tillage Conference he will describe the thought processes he goes through in trading his grain, and will emphasise that the most important step in the process is to know, in advance, the costs of production.

From a technical point of view the only protection against volatility is to maximise output and minimise costs, so that losses are minimised or avoided in poor years and profits maximised in good years.

The most significant single cost on a tillage farm is machinery cost, which is relatively inflexible from year to year and must be carried in poor, as well as good years. Dermot Forristal, Teagasc, will be looking in detail at harvesting costs to explain how to minimise the costs that must be carried, but to maintain sufficient capacity to bring the harvest in, even in a wet year.

Despite 2010 having been probably the lowest disease year for over a decade due to the dry weather, disease is an ever present threat, and even in low disease years pathogens continue to try to overcome our best efforts to control them. Steven Kildea, Teagasc, will describe the latest developments in our Septoria populations and how we can incorporate the new fungicides, coming onto the market in 2011, to keep ahead.

As well as price variability tillage farmers need to cope with volatility in the weather. Whilst this obviously affected disease in 2010, it less obviously affects nitrogen availability in most seasons. Richie Hackett, Teagasc, will outline new research work which is being undertaken to account for this variability, to help growers target the correct nitrogen rate to meet yield and market requirements.

The area of winter barley and oilseed rape have both seen significant increases for 2011. Whilst they bring useful diversity to the rotation, we need to make sure that they both earn their place. Recent work has emphasised that to achieve high yields, both crops need to set high seed numbers, but how they get there is very different. Teagasc tillage specialist, Michael Hennessey will explain that for winter barley to set a high number of seeds it needs to set a large number of ears, and outlines the husbandry approaches to achieve it. Conversely to set a large number of seeds in oilseed rape, large numbers of flowers and pods need to be avoided, John Spink will explain why, and describe agronomic approaches to maximise yield.

Finally, Tim O’Donovan, Teagasc Tillage specialist, will present how the innovations described above are being combined into practical whole farm approaches, and demonstrated on the Teagasc Tillage BETTER farms.