World of grain – farmers grapple with tough conditions
Not only have prices fallen back from 2022, but they are also lower than historical averages while costs have remained stubbornly high. By the start of the last week in August, after a reasonably decent spell of weather, and after Storm Betty hit the country, upwards of 70 per cent of the harvest had been completed.
Donal Moloney, grain manager with Tirlán provides some context: “Last year we had 80-90 per cent of the harvest completed by August 21. However, last year was a bit of an anomaly, with early ripening and near-perfect harvesting conditions for the most part.
“Compared to 2021, this year is not a lot different in terms of harvesting progress. One major difference with the 2023 harvest is that it started earlier. We began taking in grain nine days earlier than last year and 18 days earlier than 2021. That shows the slow progress of the current harvest, with a much earlier start date but not completed at the end of the third week in August. Apart from the hardship of stop-start harvesting, the outcome will be a reduction in total tonnage of at least 10 per cent, maybe even 15 per cent, depending on yields of spring barley to be harvested. That’s compared to last year’s outcome.”
Acreage under pressure
The general expectation across the sector is that while yields are back, overall acreage has not reduced dramatically. That is likely to change, perhaps dramatically, with the ongoing surge in demand for land rental, driven by the expectation that livestock stocking rates may have to be reduced by government and EU policies in the coming years. An announcement on the Nitrates Derogation review is imminent and that will dictate land demand in the coming years. Cow banding is already revised, again leading to higher land demand, which is impacting on the financial ability of the tillage sector to compete for land and retain existing land leases.
An average outcome
It is always better to compare historical averages when it comes to grain yields, as individual years are often out of kilter with longer-term averages. Donal comments: “While this harvest, so far to August 21, has been slow and tedious, yields in general have held up well compared to the long-term average. The five-year average for winter barley, for instance, is around 3.65 tonnes (t) per acre or 9t/hectare (ha). That’s on a par or even a little higher than the five-year average. The long-term average for winter wheat is just under 4t/ac (9.88t/ha) and this year’s crop averaged the same. There seems to be less variation in yields and quality across crops and farms and that is certainly our experience in relation to winter barley. Overall, given the hardships suffered by crops during the growing season, most growers are satisfied with those crops in terms of yield and quality. There was very wet weather last autumn after sowing, then the spring brought a dry time with a drought during June and then very high rainfall in July. Given all of that, the winter crops have been very resilient, matching that five-year yield and quality average.”
Tirlán is a specialist buyer of oats, specifically the gluten-free variety. The co-op’s grain manager reflects on the oat harvest: “Winter oat crops delivered good-quality grain, maybe slightly back on the previous two years, which were exceptional. Yields were also good. At this stage the bulk of the spring-sown oats crops are only being harvested so it’s a little early to make predictions for them. The early-spring sown crops have been harvested and delivered well in terms of yield and quality. Visually, the later sown crops look decent, with little evidence of having suffered greatly from weather pressures. The combined figures will give us the real picture. While late-sown spring barley crops suffered from the drought and subsequent secondary growth, that doesn’t seem to have been as big an issue for late-sown spring oats crops.”
Last year was a bit of an anomaly, with early ripening and near-perfect harvesting conditions for the most part
Spring barley disappointment
Of all the grain crops, spring barley, especially later-sown crops, were being forecast to be well back on the five-year average. “Many growers were reporting disappointing yields with quality also hit badly. One grower in the southeast described his crops as being ’like three crops in one’: the original sown crop, then add in a lot of secondary growth promoted by the June drought and surge in growth when the rain came in July, and then the third crop is the weed infestation that came into the crop over the past month. Donal concurs with that description: “By far, spring barley is the most variable crop, with yields and quality going in different directions for growers and even crops within farms showing huge variation. Malting barley has been hit badly with a lot of crops failing on the quality standards required, especially protein content.
“Crops in the midlands seem to have been affected less by the drought than crops in the east and southeast. Much of the malting barley sown by Wexford growers, for instance, is failing the malting standards. While expectations are low for yield, with a lot of second crops, or secondary growth dragging down quality, those secondary growth plants may contribute a bit to yield.”
There has been a noticeable increase in rye crops in recent years. Input costs are lower and yields have been reasonable, encouraging growers to spread their bets and include some in their acreage. Yields of 4t/ac have been common this harvest with the option of earlier sowing being an advantage, especially this season. If there is a specific disadvantage with the crop, it is with a deficit of market options. A larger acreage of rye might be beneficial in terms of developing feed market opportunities and further storage capacity would, in turn, be required of millers to accommodate greater tonnages. While growers would not relish the prospect, one solution, at the demand end, is to lower the price from benchmarking barley price in order to increase market interest. That is a win/lose prospect for growers and there is likely to be little enthusiasm for that course of action.
The harsh reality of low prices will only really hit growers in the aftermath of the harvest. Green barley is currently struggling to reach €200/t with futures to the end of the year pricing dried barley at €225/t. That would make even €200 optimistic for green grain. Price depression has only intensified in recent weeks with no indication of any increase. The normal wheat price differential is running at €15/t which doesn’t provide any solace for growers either. In summary, it has been a difficult harvest and while winter wheat and barley held up well, the base crop, spring barley, was lower yielding, lower quality and lower priced than required to deliver profitability, given the higher production costs now embedded in grain production. Grain prices can only be described as falling far short of what is required to keep growers in profit.