Land and labour availability the main drivers of machinery choice
The above question was put to me recently, and what I would say, firstly, is that for the vast majority it's not a decision taken lightly, or hastily. Indeed, it could take a couple of years to finally take the plunge to invest in a piece of kit whether new or second hand. The Targeted Agricultural Modernisation Scheme (TAMS) has played a role in machinery purchases. It's a welcome scheme, generally, and the new Tillage Capital Investment Scheme, under TAMS 3, is now open for applications until June 16. However, it has some faults in my opinion.
THOUGHTS ON TAMS
I believe that more types of tillage equipment should be made available under the scheme, and there needs to be more focus on equipment for smaller-horsepower tractors. A far greater percentage of tillage farmers are smaller scale or mixed farmers. It's logical to put more focus there where horsepower requirements are lower, and higher-grade technology makes little financial sense. A case could also be made for how financing is dealt with. Surely, when a loan provider gives written approval, that should suffice rather than the farmer having to have all the money in the bank account when paying for the piece of equipment on a particular day. It disrupts cashflow in many instances especially in relation to larger investments. Another point in relation to TAMS is the ceiling of €90,000 that is in place for individuals, joint ventures and companies (a higher ceiling will be in place for Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine-registered farm partnerships). This needs to be raised substantially, especially in the light of the sharp rise in equipment prices. In my view, €200,000 should be the figure. The precedence is there in the pig and poultry sectors to raise the ceiling.
Horsepower and size
The average horsepower is now in the 160-170hp range, I'm told, and rising consistently as the years pass, which also means that the equipment attached is heavier. Is this leading to problems? Last autumn and spring have proven difficult, weather wise. We are told that weather patterns are changing, with more intense wet spells and more intense heat spells becoming the norm. Ireland’s geographical location suggests that we will be hit least hard in terms of crop production, but these challenges need a closer look when choosing equipment. This leads me on to one of the key drivers when making a decision to upgrade equipment. More recently, skilled labour has become a scarce commodity and the cost of employing someone, even just as casual labour at peak times, is being examined now for various reasons. The need for more horsepower equates to having less labour to get through the workload when the weather windows open. It is often now a case of needs must when making the move to purchase.
What's also evolving is that more and more tillage farmers are working off farm either full- or part-time. So, their choice of equipment is definitely influenced by time limits and reliability of the equipment they buy. Spending hours repairing equipment is low on the priority list. When I started farming, the necessity for off-farm work was mostly confined to small livestock farm holdings based mainly in the west of Ireland. How times have changed. The youth currently are not attracted to the tillage industry and this is reflected in the numbers in agricultural colleges and universities.
We also must remember that contractors are suffering the same labour issues and we must support them as best we can to help them provide the quality service we expect. Can we afford to lose such a valuable service especially when the age profile of tillage farmers is increasing yearly?
Technology is moving at a fast pace, which is exciting and challenging at the same time. Spending hard-earned funds on what could be outdated and unwanted technology in the future is always in the back of the mind. However, in fairness to the trade, they recognise this and are working on technology that facilitates better communication between different systems. Connecting information from soil sample results to combine harvester yield monitors, etc. and regurgitating that information to sprayers and variable-rate spreaders will become the norm, I think. This, too, is going to influence purchases where different equipment will be able to communicate with each other via software packages. I plan to invest in auto-steer technology myself in the near future.
Impact of nitrates rules
The impact of revised nitrates rules has been felt by our dairy neighbours and those intensively farming livestock, but tillage farmers have been put directly in the middle of this problem. The land rental market has historically been important to the tillage sector, aiding farmers in scaling up, in order to survive. Now, the ability to hold on to rented land looks bleak due to demand for extra land by intensive livestock farms. This year saw the rental market heat up substantially. Next year and the year after look even worse as the limit of 250kg organic nitrogen application per hectare may drop to 220kg per hectare under the new cow-banding rules. This is inevitable, I believe, if water quality does not improve.
Another impact on water quality is, perhaps, restrictions on the rate of chemical fertiliser allowed to be used on crops even though our [tillage] usage-efficiency rate is extremely high compared to other agricultural sectors. What impact will that have on viability on owned land? Do tillage farmers have to consider a farm gate fee for slurry? It cannot be ruled out yet, especially with the impact of nitrates measures now taking a real hold. We simply cannot solve another sector’s problem and help keep it viable while we encounter serious land issues just because we are deemed by some not to be as financially competitive for land. The thinking caps need to be worn longer to deal with the nitrates challenges. Meanwhile tillage farmers, especially those in the rental market will wonder whether to update equipment or contract their operation which may be forced on them anyway while this is hanging over us.