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Making grains for the environment

Matt O’Keeffe was out and about recently at a number of tillage-related events – Tirlán’s Quality Grain Awards and Teagasc’s Boortmalt Malting Barley Conference. Here, he reports on some of the key messages from both which include positive updates on the sustainability of Irish tillage farming, and the low carbon footprint of our grains
Champion food grade oats growers, John and Mark Deering (front), from Morette near Emo in County Laois, won the coveted overall Tirlán Quality Grain Award for 2023. Also pictured: Tirlán chair John Murphy; Minister Martin Heydon; Tirlán director of agri-business, Ailish Byrne; and CEO designate, Seán Molloy. Photo: Finbarr O'Rourke.

Last month’s Tirlán Grain Awards provided a refreshing insight into the professionalism and expertise of Irish grain growers. The 14 individual awards alone showed the diversity of grains grown on Irish tillage farms and the focus on pursuing an added-value strategy as far as possible. The overall award winners were the Deering family from Laois, who also won an individual award for the quality of their food-grade oats crop.

Adequate malting seed available

While there had been some pessimism around sourcing sufficient seed grain for this spring’s planting season, there was reassurance on offer regarding seed availability from another venue last month. The Teagasc Boortmalt Malting Barley Conference attendees were told that there would be ample malting barley seed available for growers. There was a warning that to ensure sufficient seed for the premium malting barley crop, it would be critical to plant at optimum seed rates in good ground conditions. While there is no sign of those ground conditions materialising in the short term, it is early days yet for planting.

Sustainability credentials

Both Tirlán and Teagasc events placed a lot of emphasis on the sustainability of Irish tillage farming, and novel research conducted by Teagasc for Tirlán and publicised at the Grain Awards ceremony confirmed the low carbon footprint of Irish grain. This was referenced by John Kealy, head of grains at Tirlán: “A life cycle analysis (LCA) was developed to prove the high sustainability and consequent low carbon footprint of Irish grain. We have one of the lowest figures globally and, when straw incorporation is taken into account, the figures drop to almost net zero.”
Translating those sustainability credentials into an increased monetary return for growers has yet to materialise to any significant extent, as John acknowledged: “Everybody is expecting this to be the next link in the chain. We now need to leverage these impressive sustainability credentials on behalf of growers. It is up to us in Tirlán to ensure that the carbon efficiency of our growers’ produce is reflected in the prices sought from our customers, whether that is in food grains for human consumption or in feed grains destined for livestock production, or in the brewing and distilling sectors, where high-value end products are created using Irish grain as a central ingredient.
“At this stage, around 40 per cent of our grain purchases attract some level of premium pricing. We would like to increase that both in volume and in percentage terms if at all possible.”

The global context

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Martin Heydon, was asked the same question around translating low carbon footprint credentials into higher prices for the primary producer: “I visit boardrooms across the world where there is constant talk about sustainability and we are trying to grow existing market opportunities and develop new markets,” he said. “Our high sustainability figures, ultimately, should deliver a win for Irish grain growers in terms of more premium pricing for their produce. It is all our responsibility across politicians, industry and growers to deliver on this aim.”
Minister Heydon admitted the challenge associated with growing the Irish tillage acreage in current circumstances: “We lost ground last year so our very ambitious target to build to 400,000 hectares has been made harder, mainly because of poor weather conditions. However, Government hasn’t been found wanting in supporting the sector through a range of initiatives and we have seen growers react positively to the likes of the Straw Incorporation Scheme. I want to see the various incentives developed further to assist in the growth of the sector.”

‘Doing the little things well’

Commenting on the Deering family’s success at the 2024 Tirlán Quality Grain Awards, Mark Deering, said: “We focus on doing the little things well and are very thankful to our agronomist, Tim Scott (Tirlán), for his help throughout the year. It’s lovely to be recognised for the work we do as a family to produce a range of
quality crops in a sustainable way. We’re
thrilled to be going home with two wins

It makes the hard work very worthwhile and we will enjoy celebrating these wins.”
Crops on the family farm are established mainly by min-till and organic manures are used on some of the land. Attention to detail is a hallmark of the Deering’s success in growing quality grains. The winning crop had an average specific weight of 57.8kg/ha at 17.6 per cent moisture across 214 tonnes and, incidentally, was a crop of gluten-free oats.

Top grain growers

John and Ann Deering and their son Mark from Emo in Co. Laois were adjudicated as the overall Grain Award winners at the Tirlán event. Earlier in the proceedings, the Deerings claimed an individual award for their prowess in growing food-grade oats. The oats crop is just one of a range of grain crops grown on the Deering farm, including winter barley which is the mainstay of their tillage operation. Winter oilseed rape, spring beans and winter oats (gluten-free) all act as break-crops alongside the award-winning food grade oats. The Deering family also grows winter wheat and manages spring barley on contract locally. The production figures for the food grade oats are impressive with 57.8kg per hectolitre specific weight, harvested at 17.6 per cent moisture and delivering a total tonnage of 214 tonnes.

Advancing our premium reputation

In attendance at the Tirlán event was Teagasc director, Frank O’Mara who reflected on Irish grain-growing standards: “Our collaboration with Tirlán in researching the sustainability of the Irish grain growing sector has proven that we are in a very strong position compared to our international competitors. In many instances, we are not far from having grain crops that are effectively carbon neutral.”
Frank also commented on the development, with South East Technological University of a centre of excellence for brewing and distilling research, as outlined in another article published in this issue on page XXXXXX: “The centre is based at Oakpark and was funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM). The purpose is to investigate the brewing and distilling qualities of Irish grain. We are particularly interested in the qualities of Irish grain that make them suitable for those uses. Issues such as crop husbandry or varietal differences or soil types will affect the characteristics of grain for brewing and distilling. Obviously, the whole thrust of the initiative is to get more of our grain into the higher value markets and get premium prices for a higher proportion of our grain,” he said.
“The Irish drinks industry is going very well, and we have a very good reputation internationally for producing high quality products. Exports in the sector are increasing year-on-year and it represents an opportunity for our grain growers to capitalise on this growth and success. Feed grain production is very much an internationally competitive market and the margins are tight so the more we can move our growers up the value chain the better for our growers economic wellbeing. The key is to get a distinguishing feature in that premium market. It’s one thing to be supplying the malting and distilling sectors. We need to be in the top end of that premium market to maximise the benefits for our grain growers. Those sustainability figures around very low carbon footprint should help to deliver that distinguishing advantage we need for our grain crops.”