Tomás’s Farming Week: Ploughing on with the Spring Barley

Patrick Bolger

| Grass & Crops

| Apr 10, 2017

tractor ploughing

There’s been a lot of talk recently about all the technology that is coming online on Irish farms over the next few years with GPS trackers, robotic milking machines and animal monitors but there has already been huge advances over the past few years in the agricultural sector. We have seen the benefits of this on our own farm, particularly on how we sow our spring barley.

Sowing Spring Barley

It was only a few years ago we were sowing our 40 acres of spring barley with a MF corn drill.


MF corn drill for spring barley
MF Corn Drill


This meant a day cultivating the land  prior to seeding, two days seeding using the corn drill (which doesn’t include the half a day trying to get the tram lines to work on it) and another day spent rolling with the ring roller to leave the land good and level afterwards. However, this process was often stretched out over a 2 week period due to the weather.

Today this job is outsourced to a local contractor and the work is all done in a day (or less) with a one pass system which eliminates so much time, hassle and weather dependency.

New Tech, Old Problems

This is all well and good but the same problems still occur every year.


one-pass system for sowing the spring Barley
Our contractors one-Pass system for sowing Spring Barley


The rising cost of fertilisers and sprays and the decreasing price and raising of the standards for malting barley is an issue.

Last year was the first year as long as I can remember that the barley did not pass for malting which was a huge hit financially.

On the flip side, straw is currently making around €20 a bale around the country but most of our straw was sold from the field after harvest for a little over €10 a bale.

Sprays & Pesticides Compliance

The other technology we use on the farm which has saved us a lot of time and hassle is the Herdwatch app which is very handy when we’re out filling the sprayer from the water tank in the shed.

As the tank is filling, dad can simply record the spray used, application rate and select the fields he is about to spray on the app and this will cover us for the new spray legislation which came out in 2016.

Herdwatch is also a great way to keep an eye on our spray stock. All purchases of spray goes in as we buy and it is automatically deducted when we use it, which means I always know what’s left and the expiry dates so that no nothing is wasted.

Looking For Alternatives To Spring Barley

With the margins for tillage farmers getting tighter and tighter each year, I was looking into what alternatives were out there for tillage farmers.

I came across Miscanthus (elephant grass) on “Big week on the Farm” on RTE the other day but the common perception seems to be that it is very hard to get out of the ground once it is in. You also have to be in within a certain radius of power stations to supply it.

On the plus side, yield is generally between four/five tonnes an acre and is making around €60 per tonne. Miscanthus is planted once, it regenerates without being replanted, doesn’t need fertiliser, only slurry, and is sprayed once a year.

Willow was also suggested, however the returns are slow in the first 2 or 3 years depending on when you harvest it. You get 12 cuts out of it, so if you cut it every 2 years you get 24 years out of it, every 3 years harvesting it you get 36 years out of the one planting for €1,000 per acre planting cost!

You can grow it on dry or wet land but as every crop you get better return for drier land, plus, the best time to harvest it is in November so it probably wouldn’t be the wisest planting it on very wet land! Plus easily ploughed up if wanted! The downside is it loses half it’s weight when the willow is dried!

Beans also provide an excellent break crop in cereal rotation, profitable to grow (compares favourably to spring barley), relatively simple to grow and cereal machinery can be used. It can also help control difficult weeds in continuous cereal ground.

There was a €100 grant per acre for beans and require very low levels of spray per year. Beans also provide yield increases of 15-20% in the following cereal crop.

Convincing the boss isn’t easy

All this sounds great in theory but at the end of the day Dad has the final say on everything for now and it’s very hard to get him to change his ways after growing barley the last 50 years through the good times and the bad.

Perhaps if there was more of an incentive out there to start growing energy crops for renewable energy I might be able to convince him to change things up, but for 2017, I suppose we’ll plough on with the spring barley and hope for a better return on investment.

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