There were many fundamental and technological changes in the Irish tillage sector through the 1990s and 2000s.

When I first arrived in the Irish Farmers Journal office in the Irish Farm Centre on 2 January 1990 I was given a desk with a keyboard and a green screen.

Within a few weeks I had a real computer (or two) and since then I have been writing in Microsoft Word. I had never heard of the internet and mobile phones were only getting going.

At that time the Irish Farmers Journal was leading the way in digital printing technology and it had moved to digital page layout for articles.

However, the small ads still used old physical printing press technology but that too became digital within a short time.

Our photos were mainly from black and white negatives – now they are all digital and other technological developments continue.

Policy and regulations

Perhaps an area that has seen a similar rate of change is EU policy drivers and regulations.

The 1980s drove expanded production through supported prices – opportunity beckoned as the EEC was a deficit region for cereals.

However, productivity quickly resulted in surpluses and the challenges of dealing with them. Policy moved from increasing production to that of managing surpluses.

The MacSharry reforms of 1993 brought a significant policy shift which moved support away from the product to the land.

The following CAP led to even more fundamental reforms to comply with the requirements of the general agreement on tariffs and trade (GATT), which later became the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Policy began to lean away from production and environmental considerations came to the fore.

Each subsequent CAP continued to veer towards environmental stewardship and now we see an associated push towards biodiversity, climate action and sustainability.

The next CAP seeks to remove some of the tools of modern farming in favour of organic.

Other policies drive air and water quality, greenhouse gas emissions, areas relating to nature, pesticide use etc. What was once an invitation to produce more has become a series of constraints that limit production in favour of environmental and political preferences or persuasions.

Prices and costs

It may come as a surprise to some that we had an agreed single national price for green feed barley through the 1980s and into the 1990s.

This was agreed between IFA and the Irish Grain and Feed Association. But as grain trade into the EU was liberalised and institutional prices were weakened or removed, buyers moved to do their own thing.

Intervention had been an important price support mechanism for many years but as oversupply became a feature, instruments like the co-responsibility levy and set-aside came into being and pressure to dispose of surpluses became a reality. The intervention floor was pushed progressively lower until it became more of a trapdoor than a support as the default position for oversupply was to pull the price down to intervention level, whether justified or not.

The 1990s and 2000s witnessed expanding global production. Land was coming back into production in eastern Europe and a drive for bioethanol in the US resulted in land coming out of CRP (conservation reserve programme – a form of set-aside) and going back to grain production.

There was also significant expansion of grain and soya bean production in South America, especially in Brazil and Argentina which have since become huge global exporters of maize and soya products.

South American production led to the increased availability of maize as a feed ingredient and this has since significantly affected small grain demand and prices in the EU.

When Ray MacSharry introduced his CAP reforms in 1993, the support prices for grain were reduced incrementally during the 1993 to 1996 period with the help of area aid supports.

Markets remained relatively strong during these years and especially in 1996 (if my memory serves me right), making the combination of good price plus area aid add up to a particularly good year for tillage returns. But there it stopped and there was little joy for crop margins again until the price surge of 2007.

It is interesting to look back at some prices and costs given to me recently. In the 1970s a complete engine overhaul for an MF135 cost £221 (€280). This included pistons, rings, cylinder liners, big-end shells, oil pump, valves and guides, gaskets and oil seals. The same job on an MF165 cost £343 (€435).

In 1981 a tonne of 18.6.12 cost £140 (€177.76), a tonne of Midas certified seed cost £225 (€285.70) and a new Leyland 272 tractor cost £8,900 (€11,300). In the autumn of 1983, 0.10.20 cost £128/t (€162.53/t) and tractor diesel cost £2.017/gallon (€0.56/l).

In 1984 a new 30ft four-bay hay shed cost £3,000 (€3,809). A box of Bayleton CF cost £11.25 (€14.28), a litre of Tilt cost £31.25 (€39.70), a litre of Bayfidan cost £29 (€36.82) and a can of Avenge cost £42 (€53.33).

In 1998 the production cost for winter wheat was put at £229/ac (€290.80). The equivalent cost from Teagasc for 2022 was €765/ac.

Farm equipment

Technology changed considerably in farm equipment also. Equipment got bigger alongside farm size.

In the early 1980s ploughing was almost universal, with most cultivation done using fixed or spring-tined implements.

One-pass systems became popular through the 1980s, especially for winter crops, and the system gradually moved to spring planting also.

The one-pass system was generally dependent on the power harrow, a great tool that had one major failing – it could work in situations where it should not be asked to work. But even before that some growers had moved away from the plough towards non-inversions systems. This meant min-till or direct drill but neither stood the test of time, with grass weeds being a major problem.

However, these systems often lacked one major ingredient for success – rotation.

The 1980s and 1990s saw a big push for continuous winter wheat. The practice intensified but yield stagnation was a definite consequence, regardless of the establishment system. Land became more worn and soils began to tighten. It was costing more over time to get the same yield.

At a crop walk in the 1980s were Mark Wilkinson, Dublin, ?(don't know his name), Hugo Byrne, Dubin, Michael Hannan, Dublin, Tony O'Reilly (RIP) Tipperary and Brendan Dunne AFT, Oak Park.

Non-inversion systems have returned over the past two decades but generally in much more sustainable systems. Rotations are seen as critical and the practices of straw or organic manure incorporation and catch cropping have helped soil structure and productivity.

GPS control systems brought another big change to our machinery fleet. Initially this was mainly used as part of the technology to create yield maps at harvest.

Since then the benefits delivered through autosteer, on-off control systems for input application, bout width control on spreaders and machine automation, have been considerable.

Autosteer is contributing to the efficiency of machine usage as well as providing increased precision for tramline widths to prevent waste through spray overlaps or misses. The technology also helps to reduce operator stress when working long hours at busy times.

Better cabs, axle suspensions and high-tech transmission systems have also helped in this regard.

Weed evolution

Wild oats were a rarity in fields 45 years ago and other grass weeds even more so, except for scutch. Now wild oats are ubiquitous while scutch is rare, thanks to glyphosate.

When production was being intensified, every problem was considered to have a solution from either a bottle or a bag.

New actives became more effective and problems were allowed to get worse before expensive chemical intervention was considered. The result was an increasing problem across a range of grass weeds such as wild oats, sterile brome, creeping softgrass and canary grass. Others came later.

The policy of spraying when a problem got bad enough was understandable when there was a prolific discovery of new actives. But now new actives are rare and the ones we still have are increasingly subjected to natural resistance. Because “one year’s seeding is seven years’ weeding”, we now have problems that are far worse than anyone would like.

The story is somewhat similar for broadleaved weeds. These were always kept in check by a big range of actives but then came the sulphonylurea actives. Their frequent use drove resistance development in a number of weeds which are now an increasing challenge.

Malting, milling and drinks

The malting sector has gone through considerable metamorphosis. Names like Roche-Gibney, Bennetts, WB Nunn, Williams Waller and Minch Norton mainly morphed into a single entity – Boortmalt.

This transition saw a lot of smaller growers removed from the production system and the intake was more or less centralised around Athy. The Malting Company of Ireland is now the only alternative to Boortmalt.

Bit by bit the drinks industry divorced itself from producers. Disgruntlement with the main maltster resulted in some growers ceasing production during a time of demand expansion. As a result, the company expanded its geographical footprint to source barley from Cork to Donegal and many counties in between.

Also as a crop walk were Jim Treacy (RIP) Rockwell College, Dermot O'Leary, Cork, John O'Mahony, Waterford (former IFA grain chairman) and Denis Feighery who farmed in Meath.

This has again changed the structure of intake which has moved back to local intake points around the country.

Distilling had become an increasing market requirement over the past two decades and this caused considerable strife at times as technical specifications differed for brewing and distilling. An increasing focus on sustainability at manufacturing level brought the distilling sector into closer contact with growers again and the market has begun to reward growers for specific marketable criteria around sustainability.

Our native milling industry ceased in the late 1990s, even prior to sugar. The takeover of our flour mills by foreign companies quickly resulted in the closure of all but one mill in Portarlington in the south. Those companies then opted to mill abroad and sent in the flour to Irish customers. We are still totally dependent on imports for industrial flour.

In brief

  • Over the past four decades, policy has moved from incentivising production to almost demonising some aspects of it.
  • We have seen considerable change in our most troublesome weed flora in that period.
  • One-pass systems, cultivator drills, non-inversion systems and the use of GPS represented technological advancements across the decades.
  • While the bulk of our grain is still used for animal feed, our malting market has seen considerable change and the flour milling sector ceased in the late 1990s.