In pursuit of greater sustainability in agriculture, the Irish Government has plans to broaden the tillage area, aiming to boost the production of locally sourced grain and proteins.

This strategic move would not only reduce reliance on imports but also align with efforts to elevate the value of grains, with a special focus on brewing.

Significantly, tillage farms, characterised by the lowest carbon footprint among agricultural enterprises are essential to advance Ireland’s sustainability targets.

The Irish tillage sector generates economic outputs of €1.3bn per annum, but faces significant challenges to continue progress in reducing pesticide usage to comply with the ambition of the EU’s Green Deal and Farm to Fork Strategy.

All farmers, including tillage farmers, must reduce their reliance on pesticides while simultaneously trying to maintain crop yields and farm profitability. Pesticides are an important tool, helping farmers to protect crops from disease damage and to increase yields.

However, the use of pesticides also raises concerns about their potential impacts on the environment, such as effects on biodiversity and water quality. In addition, herbicide resistance is now reducing options for control, leading to increased use of non-chemical control options.

An integrated strategy for weed management that blends cultural controls (such as stale seedbeds, crop rotation, sowing date manipulation, etc) with conventional control techniques can be an effective way to reduce pesticide usage, but more work is needed to demonstrate the efficacy and practical application of these methods to farmers.

In Ireland, a growing challenge has emerged with reduced sensitivity or resistance of, for example, wild oats, sterile brome, blackgrass and Italian ryegrass to widely used selective herbicides.

Teagasc research indicates that 50% of blackgrass samples and 60% of Italian ryegrass samples submitted for testing already exhibit resistance to multiple herbicide chemistries from groups A (ACCase) and B (ALS).

This necessitates a shift in perspective, requiring all instances of blackgrass and Italian ryegrass to be treated as potentially resistant to chemical control.

Notably, Teagasc research has shown glyphosate (a non-selective herbicide), to be ineffective in managing certain blackgrass and Italian ryegrass strains when applied at 540g/ha in stubble fields in research conducted and higher rates are needed in those situations for effective control. This calls for a stringent, zero-tolerance approach among farmers in addressing this escalating issue.

Integrated pest management

Integrated pest management (IPM) favours preventive measures and prioritises the use of low-risk plant protection products (PPPs) and non-chemical methods of pest control, where possible.

Under the Sustainable Use Directive (SUD), IPM must be promoted by all European member states and implemented by all professional users of PPPs.

By combining various pest management strategies and minimising pesticide use, IPM can assist farmers to effectively manage pests while safeguarding the environment, and promoting long-term agricultural sustainability.

It can also help to reduce the potential for development of resistance to various PPPs.

The use of IPM involves regular monitoring of crops for signs of pests and diseases, crop rotation and the use of natural predators.

Chemical control is a part of IPM, but should only be considered as a last resort when all other options have been exhausted. Effective implementation of an integrated pest management strategy not only reduces the need for pesticides, but also contributes to higher long-term productivity and crop quality.

Future technologies

As we stand at the intersection of technological innovation and agricultural sustainability, the potential for integrating future technologies into IPM strategies holds the promise of revolutionising the way we combat pests and diseases, ultimately paving the way for a significant reduction in reliance on traditional pesticides.

Precision agriculture allows farmers to target pesticides precisely

Precision agriculture, utilising GPS-guided machinery, precision spraying and sensor-based monitoring, allows farmers to target pesticides precisely, minimising overuse and reducing impact on non-target organisms and the environment.

Weed robots

At the Crops Open Day in June held by Teagasc in association with the Irish Farmers Journal, the FarmDroid robot showcased its dual functionality in drilling and weeding various crops, including beet, onions and cabbage, grown in wide row spacings. This solar-powered device, controlled by cameras, accurately identifies and removes weeds growing within or between rows.

Precision application of pesticides

Like ‘weed robots’, it will not be long before technology affords the ability to accurately ‘spot-spray’ weeds in a crop.

Cameras mounted on such machines will identify weeds or areas where an application is needed and those when none is required. Again, this will further assist farmers to reduce the amount of pesticides that are used.

Farmers are encouraged to adopt GPS technology, ensuring precise overlap of spray bout widths, and facilitating targeted spraying on patches in the field with substantial weed infestation.

Andy Crawford checking out Farmdroid at the Crops and Cover crop cultivations open day at Teagasc, Oakpark, Co Carlow. \ Claire Nash

New genomic techniques (NGTs)

Established genomic techniques generate random sequence alterations in the genome, whereas NGTs allow changes to be directed to a selected genomic location, thus enabling more precise editing of the genome.

A genome-edited plant is a plant obtained by targeted mutagenesis techniques (ie induce mutation(s) in selected target locations of the genome).

New genomic techniques enable the development of disease-tolerant varieties, thereby minimising the need for expensive pesticide applications on crops. This makes it an effective IPM tool.

The EU legislative proposal currently being considered aims to present a legal framework for plants derived from NGTs. This proposal will define the regulatory framework for potential future use of NGTs.

IPMworks project

The IPMworks project, which is funded by the EU, involves seven farmers in Ireland (counties Meath, Kildare, Wexford, Tipperary and Cork) adopting diverse IPM techniques.

Practices include crop rotation, grass margins, aphid monitoring, cover cropping, tramline trials, organic manure use and GPS for reduced pesticide usage.

Visit for project details.

The project emphasises peer-to-peer learning among farmers, fostering the exchange of experiences to encourage wider adoption of different techniques.

Some Irish farmers have visited Scotland and Denmark to learn about pest control strategies in similar regions.

Key components of IPM

Pest monitoring and identification

Regular monitoring and accurate identification of pests are essential for effective IPM implementation.

Farmers should observe and record pest populations in a field book, as well as identify their lifecycles. If farmers have uncertainties regarding a specific pest or disease, it is recommended that they seek professional guidance for precise pest identification.

Skippy Scout drone crop walking.

Farmers should maintain records to monitor pest and disease levels, along with regulatory requirements for pesticide applications.

Documenting the effectiveness of interventions is crucial for developing an informed and effective management strategy.

Cultural and mechanical control

IPM encourages the implementation of cultural practices that make the agricultural system less favourable for pests. This should include crop rotation, using certified seed/plants, maintaining proper plant spacing, and where appropriate mechanical weed destruction/harvester or hand roguing weeds.

Crop rotation is proven to disrupt the lifecycle of pests and reduces the need for pesticides.

It also improves soil health and fertility. To minimise increases in sterile brome populations, tillage farmers are advised to avoid successive crops of winter barley (in all production) systems, but particularly in non-inversion systems.

Cleaning machinery and equipment is an effective approach to combating the spread of weeds.

Depending on the time of year, considerable quantities of soil (and plant material) can be transported around the farm (and countryside), and every care should be taken to minimise this, as the potential for infecting/contaminating clean fields is high.

With the highly invasive blackgrass weed, for example, biosecurity is crucial when acquiring used machinery, as this is how the weed was introduced from the UK into Ireland.

Herbicide resistance in wild oats is concerning. In small numbers, wild oats can be pulled.

When necessary, farmers should carefully select and apply pesticides based on accurate pest identification and environmental considerations.

Lower-risk pesticides with targeted modes of action should be favoured over broad-spectrum options to minimise non-target impacts.

In addition, ensuring precise sprayer calibration guarantees the accurate application of pesticides, maximising their effectiveness while minimising waste.

Benefits of IPM for Irish farmers

  • Reduced dependency on pesticides – farmers can significantly reduce pesticide reliance, benefiting water quality and protecting beneficial organisms and non-target species.
  • Cost savings – farmers can cut pesticide costs by monitoring pests vigilantly and applying pesticides strategically, optimising resource allocation and reducing unnecessary expenses.
  • Slower pesticide resistance development.
  • Take-home message

    Continuing progress in reducing usage of PPPs will be a significant challenge for Irish farmers, but it is a challenge they are well equipped to meet.

    Given the current trajectory of EU strategy the availability of chemical PPPs will continue to decline.

    While biopesticides may provide a solution in some cases, relying solely on them may not always effectively reduce high levels of pest infection. This underscores the need for tillage farmers to significantly adopt IPM strategies, as well as incorporate new technologies on farm.

    Five recommendations for your farm

    1 Weed identification: is paramount for effective management, allowing farmers to tailor control strategies based on specific weed species.

    2 Sprayer calibration: guarantees accurate application of pesticides, maximising their effectiveness while minimising waste. Professional user training to properly apply pesticides is crucial, along with the essential step of testing sprayers to ensure accurate application rates.

    3 Crop rotation: implementing diverse and well-planned crop rotations helps disrupt the lifecycles of pests and diseases, promoting soil health and overall farm resilience.

    4 Clean machinery: regular cleaning of farm machinery helps prevent the inadvertent spread of weeds and diseases.

    5 Use grass margins to control weeds: grass margins can serve as a natural and effective barrier against weeds, particularly those such as sterile brome.

    Grass margins represent one of the measures in the ACRES agri-environmental scheme. Farmers should examine the options available within TAMS to identify measures that align with the needs of their farm.