6 top farmers on what they are doing to cope with soaring input prices
James Muldowney is sowing 15 acres of barley on his farm on the Kilkenny-Laois border this year.
he farm hasn’t had corn planted on it for around 30 years he says, but the 15ac will help secure his winter feed bill.
“I won’t make money from it, but I usually buy in around 100 bales of straw, so hopefully I won’t have to do that this year and I will have what I want for the winter months.”
It’s part of James’s plan to reduce costs on his farm this year in light of rising fuel and feed prices.
The most important thing any farmer can do is to make a plan now, he says.
“There is no point doing it next winter and wondering what’s gone wrong.
“Farming always throws up issues, it’s the war in Ukraine this year, in 2018 it was the weather, then there was Brexit. There are always challenges but you have to keep going and not panic.
James’ suckler herd is 20pc pedigree Shorthorn and 80pc commercial (Simmental/Limousin/Blonde) and he operates a plan of increasing the quality of his suckler cows, producing stock that are easily fleshed and females that are either beef or for breeding.
“It’s not a simple situation we are in given the situation in Ukraine, and there is no right or wrong that can be applied to every farm,” he says. “But the number one thing every farmer should do now is make a plan around stock numbers and fertiliser usage.
“You have to have a budget in place for these things for this year. How long it will go on we don’t know, but we have to take this year as a standalone and keep our costs down as low as possible.”
Part of James’s plan is to move from finishing cattle off grass at the end of June and instead finish them out of the shed.
“The cattle I have to finish, I’ll do it out of the shed as I have the fodder to finish them in the next six to eight weeks,” he says. “They will be just a shake over two years old, whereas before I would usually have let them drift to 28 or 30 months.
“I have fodder in the pit and finishing them early will save me spreading fertiliser.
“While I have to buy the meal and that has risen in price, it could be even more expensive in June when you might be looking to buy it.
“So the plan is to buy meal this week to start finishing them and start moving them on.”
That, he says, will free up fertiliser use on the farm and decrease the amount he needs on his grazed ground.
“The suckler cows will look after themselves till the middle of April when we start to see good grass growth here, so I’ll let a bank of grass build up as I’m not stuck for fodder,” he says.
“The silage ground will get extra slurry this year. Usually, I would not spread till after the silage is cut but I will use it to cut back on fertiliser usage and hopefully I will get enough N from two bags of CAN and the slurry.”
James usually cuts silage at the end of May or early June on the farm and usually just one cut, but this year he will split the 50ac of silage ground into two. This year I will make it over two days, 25ac and 25ac at two different times.
“The first-cut crop will be the end of May or the first week of June and then the second cut will be made at the end of June or the second week in July. The quality may have dropped a little, but it’s a gamble I’m taking this year.”
Around 90pc of the silage on James’s farm is pit silage, as he considers it safer than handling bales.
“I think it’s the only way to have it — round bales are dangerous and expensive and there can be a lot of rubbish out of them.
“I also don’t have the machinery for drawing them but I find the pit silage better and leave it in to them every second day.
“Plus it’s cheaper. The cost of round bales this year will make them out of the question for many farmers and there probably won’t be a huge amount of them made from excess grass this year because of the cost.
“Contractors are dear men but you have to pay them. They certainly won’t be doing things for nothing this year — their bills will be double.”
Sheep: ‘I’m putting in solar panels — I want to be 100pc self-sufficient in energy’
John Fagan reckons his panels will cost 40,000 up front, set against electricity bills of €12,000 a year
When he saw his electricity bills go from €500 to €1,000 a month at the turn of the year, John Fagan knew it was time to act.
“I had been rooting around with solar panels for two years, looking at what we could do on the farm here, but it’s a no-brainer,” he says.
“My aim is to start at being 70pc self-sufficient in energy costs and build that up to 100pc. If I achieve that it will be good pay-back.
“I’ve talked to a few farmers who have solar panels and I’ve looked at them when on holidays abroad, on the roofs of cattle and sheep sheds.
“The idea of being self-sufficient and carbon neutral means it’s a good investment.”
John estimates that it will cost in the region of €40,000 up front, but when he weighs it up against electricity bills of €12,000 a year, that figure is not so daunting.
“They should be paying for themselves pretty quickly, and there are good incentives on solar investments at the moment.”
From an environmental view too, he says it’s a good to use less gas and make the farm carbon neutral.
After spending years with Ulster Bank (who are pulling out of the Irish market), John has to shop around for a new bank, which has opened his eyes to interest rates.
“I will stay put until I figure out where interest rates are going, as the idea of rates above 6pc is difficult to sustain.”
The hunt for a new bank, he says, involves looking at overdraft charges and stocking loans, which are quite different between banks.
“It’s definitely worth shopping around.”
With fertiliser prices on a serious upwards trajectory, Pasturebase has helped John reduce his usage.
“It really helps in terms of managing my grass. I was probably using more than I needed to.
“I have a plate meter and we had the farm mapped out and we numbered all the fields and while there were some teething problems, it has been great since.
It tells me when to put out fertiliser and slurry and graze fields. It also made me soil test the entire farm and bring my lime situation up to date.
“I also invested in a low emissions slurry spreading tanker last year. While I ordered it in October 2020 it was only delivered last June, but it really is a more efficient way of spreading than using a splash plate.
“Even if I wasn’t environmentally conscious it’s a good saving as it’s helping me use less fertiliser.”
John Fagan farms at Gartlandstown, Co Westmeath
Tillage: ‘We sowed a companion crop into the oilseed rape for the first time, to cut down on fertiliser’
Helen Harris has decided to change from CAN to urea, and try some liquid nitrogen for the first time
We have changed our farming methods over the last few years to reflect the higher costs of inputs, but nothing could prepare us for this year’s price rises.
We started about five years ago by changing to minimum tillage, to reduce fuel, and introducing rotation and cover crops, to reduce inputs.
Over the years we have improved our machinery to be very precise, for both economic and environmental reasons. We introduced GPS technology and precision spreading.
We have also soil-sampled our entire farm. We started by doing every hectare and then when we discovered that the soil is not that dramatically different, we cut that back to every two hectares.
This allows us to be very precise with fertilisers and lime. We then use these maps to spread exact quantities out, exactly where it is needed. Each crop and each field is different so it can be very accurate.
In the fields that are Index 4 we will take a phosphorous and potassium break this year.
It’s nitrogen that we will have the biggest bill for, so we have decided to change from CAN to urea, and we will try some liquid nitrogen for the first time. Both changes are simply down to price.
We had previously introduced organic manures, especially incorporating it after the chopped straw of beans, oil seed rape and oats. As well as helping to break down the straw, the other benefits are to increase both the fertility and organic matter in the soil.
It’s in years like this when the price is high that those long-term decisions really pay off.
We also sowed a companion crop into the oilseed rape this year for the first time. We included clover, phacelia and buckwheat. The idea is that when the cover crop dies out, it feeds the oilseed rape, and we can use less fertiliser.
Again, this decision was made long before the price increases we see today.
We had bought some compounds and nitrogen in the autumn, but we were reluctant to buy any more, as the price seemed high at the time. Little did we know that that was cheap compared with today.
Every merchant asked that we pay up front for the fertiliser, which has a huge effect on our cashflow and overdraft. For a lot of farmers this isn’t possible.
The next worry is the chemistry, as I’m being told that although the price will be higher, it’s all about having the right product at the right time.
As we are so weather dependent our window for spraying can be very tight. Will we be able to get the products when we need them?
Helen Harris and her husband Philip are tillage farmers in Co Kildare
‘We need to put a serious value on our slurry’
Given the prices, slurry may well be the only fertiliser land will see this year, says dairy farmer
The knock-on effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will bring many challenges to Irish farming this year.
I have never seen fertiliser, fuel or feed prices so high — and they are still rising. For the first time ever it took over €100 of diesel to fill my modest VW Caddy van.
Farmers will have no problem cutting back on nitrogen usage in 2022 because they either won’t be able to get it or they can’t afford it.
In a way it is a wake-up call for us all, as now we have to put a serious value on our slurry. Given the prices, slurry may well be the only fertiliser land will see this year.
Last week I sat down in my office and calculated exactly what fertiliser I needed for my first cut. I took into account the slurry that has gone out on the silage ground to date.
I also worked out what I needed for the grazing paddocks, and matched these calculations to the fertiliser stock I have.
Thankfully I have enough to see me through the first cut and the next 2-3 rounds of grazing. All I need now is to make sure the fertiliser sower is set and calibrated correctly, and put plenty of concentration into the job of sowing.
We talked about this at our discussion group last week — our advisor emphasised that sowing fertiliser should be based on soil indexes.
If soil indexes are at 3 or 4, nitrogen along with slurry should be sufficient. If soil indexes are at 1 or 2, N, P & K compounds are needed along with slurry.
Soil sampling and adhering to the results should save money as well as producing a high-quantity and quality crop.
Gerard Sherlock farms at Tydavnet, Co Monaghan
‘Saving your own seed has benefits beyond reducing costs’
Seeds harvested in the same area that they are sown should do better than equally good seed from another area, says
If it all starts with the seed, we are lucky in Ireland to have very high-quality certified seed.
I have often wondered why a bit more effort is not made to screen out broken grains and hulls — the cost would be very small — but it is rare to find the nasty stuff and, with resistant blackgrass now widespread, it’s not just wild oats we have to watch for any more.
Until recently I rarely saved my own seed. On a fairly small scale, the savings were not worth the hassle by the time I had paid somebody to clean and dress the seed for me.
But if enough care is taken to do the job properly, the benefits can be greater than just the saving in seed cost.
In years with high levels of seed-borne disease, it may be advisable to chemically dress seed, but I don’t see how the routine application of a fungicide without identifying a specific risk fits into a system of integrated pest management.
It is an environmental hazard but it also effects the performance of the seed.
My experience is that the undressed seed will emerge faster and give stronger seedling growth than dressed seed sown in the same ground.
If I have any doubts about the quality of my own seed I get it tested with the Department.
In a biologically active soil, I want the germinating seed to rapidly associate with the surrounding biology, and this is inhibited by the use of a fungicide on the seed.
Even in less active soils, the harm done by phytoxicity of the dressing must be outweighed by the value of the protection that the dressing gives to the seed — and I am not convinced that this is the case most of the time.
If I don’t need to get my seed chemically dressed, it is relatively easy to clean it at home. Farm-scale seed cleaners are not expensive to buy or run and there are plenty of older used examples around if you don’t mind a bit of cobbling.
But it is still dusty, dirty work, and often at a busy time, so I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t see an advantage.
I have observed better performance from undressed seed saved on my own farm than from undressed, certified seed of the same variety sown alongside it. (It is a condition of certain grower contacts that I buy certified seed and it is sometimes possible to get this without dressing if the assembler gets enough notice.)
I don’t think this is a reflection on the quality of certified seed, and there are a couple of possible explanations.
Seeds harvested in the same area that they are sown have been exposed to the local environment and the local biology and, if they are given the chance, will associate more quickly with that biology than equally good seed from another area.
It is the difference between arriving at a party full of old friends or arriving at one where you are a complete stranger — things get going a lot faster with your own crew.
Early seedling development is a crucial stage in plants and better early vigour makes for a healthier, higher-yielding plant.
In addition, the study of epigenetics indicates that plants adapt genetically to local conditions so there may be further merit to using seed grown on my own land for several generations rather than bringing in seeds from other areas.
I am happy to pay royalties on my farm-saved seed as I depend on the seed industry here to support plant breeders and to trial varieties in local conditions.
I would be even happier to see some of these funds devoted to eliminating unnecessary use of pesticides and looking at the benefits of growing seed on the farms on which it is produced.
Andrew Bergin is a tillage farmer based near Athy, Co Kildare
Dairy: ‘We will be ruthless with any passengers in the parlour’
‘Cost savings in 2022 is all about keeping a close eye on the simple things and analysing all information available to you on farm’
With input costs rocketing, this is certainly a year to keep the budget tight. Our current base price for milk is 43c/L, but our dairy ration is costing €412/t, and to ensure cows are in peak condition for breeding season, feed is something that can’t be skimped on.
We have fertiliser in the yard, but with suppliers not currently quoting, it’s impossible to know how that will go.
Our first port of call in reducing costs is to ensure we maximise grass growth and keep quality swards in front of the cows — lessening their requirement for supplementation while maximizing our milk price.
We have good soil indexes so our lime requirement will be minimal, and we can make good use of watery slurry combined with straight nitrogen.
We will also try to make adequate fodder for next winter as any shortfall will be costly to buy in.
We have a heat recovery system for hot water in the parlour and we can save on energy by not increasing water temperatures further with electricity, but this will require close monitoring of milk quality results, along with inspection of the milking machine to ensure everything remains clean.
Any potential drainage projects we had in mind along with roadway improvements will sit on the back burner until 2023 at the very least, although we will continue to reseed as this will pay for itself quickly on DM production.
The main area we can keep costs down is by making sure there are absolutely no passengers in the milking parlour — we have our first milk recording completed and will have a close look at the data.
A below-par-yielding cow or high-SCC cow will eat the same amount of feed and grass as her better-performing comrades, and given the high prices for beef, would be better culled out of the herd.
Cost savings in 2022 is all about keeping a close eye on the simple things and analysing all information available to you on farm. If you haven’t soil-sampled in the last few years, consider doing so now and putting a good fertiliser plan in place with an advisor.
Peter Hynes farms with his wife Paula in Aherla, Co Cork
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/news/farming-news/6-top-farmers-on-what-they-are-doing-to-cope-with-soaring-input-prices-41473923.html 6 top farmers on what they are doing to cope with soaring input prices