The area of cereals grown in Ireland has dropped by a massive 20% over the past 15 years.

In 2008, approximately 320,700ha of wheat, barley and oats were grown in this country. In 2023, this figure was just 267,500ha. That’s a decline of 19.9%.

In 2008, almost 2.5m tonnes of cereals were produced. In 2022, this figure was just over 2.5m tonnes, showing an improvement in yield, but also an exceptional year for crop production.

However, in 2023, with a significant decline in area of winter crops and poor yields due to weather, production dropped to approximately 1.93m tonnes.

Cereal area also declined, with a rise in the break crop area. However, the area of cereals, beans, peas, oilseed rape and potatoes declined by 8.5% from 2008 to 2023 (Table 6).

Why the decline?

Looking closely at the figures, you can see that a large amount of decline took place around the time of the abolition of milk quotas on 1 April 2015.

Tillage area increased by almost 7% in 2012 (see Table 6), but declined by 2.8% in 2013, 2.2% in 2014, 2.7% in 2015, 2.6% in 2016, 2.3% in 2017 and a massive 5.7% in 2018.

Moving from tillage to dairy was encouraged by the Department and Teagasc at this time. However, milk quotas were not the only reason for the decline. Bad weather was, of course, an issue and prices.

The drop in 2018 could be linked to the fact that crops were not harvested by a significant number of farmers in 2017.

Unfortunately, we could be heading for a similar situation at present. Although, in 2017, feed barley prices had increased by about €25/t on 2016. Area began to stabilise and increase slightly from 2019, until 2023.

It is important to say that these figures do not include crops like maize, beet, rye or triticale, as these crops are not included in the CSO’s figures over the years. They do differ to figures reported previously because of this.

For example, in 2022, total tillage area is estimated to have increased by about 6%, after the Tillage Incentive Scheme was introduced.

However, these figures show that the area planted to wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, oilseed rape and potatoes only increased by 5%, as crops like maize and beet were not included.

In 2023, total tillage area is estimated to have decline by 0.5%. However, these figures show that the area under wheat, barley, oats, beans, peas, oilseed rape and potatoes declined by over 2%.

Why does it matter?

No doubt some readers will say does it really matter if the tillage area declines? They will say feed can be imported.

Well, yes, feed can be imported, but during the COVID-19 pandemic and at the start of the war in Ukraine, there were serious concerns around supply.

This is why the Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue announced the Tillage Incentive Scheme.

At the size of our national herd, Ireland will always need to import feed, but certainly, it is better to reduce feed imports and be as self-sufficient as we possibly can.

We need a sustainable supply of grain for the drinks industry and if area declines, then this supply becomes harder to ensure.

Carbon emissions will increase for agriculture

Tillage has the lowest carbon footprint of the main agricultural sectors, at about 0.9t of carbon dioxide equivalents per hectare (CO2e/ha) on tillage-only farms.

In the Teagasc National Farm Survey for 2022, the carbon footprint of a tillage farm with livestock was 1.9t CO2e/ha. A dairy farm’s carbon footprint was 9.4t CO2e/ha, beef was 4.4t CO2e/ha and sheep was 3.3t CO2e/ha.

Surely, this calls for the Government to support the sector and stop land exiting tillage. If the overall goal of the Climate Action Plan is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, then surely tillage farming needs to be supported.

If a mixed tillage farm is sustained with a carbon footprint of 1.9t CO2e/ha producing grain for drinks, porridge and animal feed, isn’t it likely better for meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets rather than seeing that land exit the sector and multiply its carbon footprint by four or five times?

It should be noted that data from 2008 to 2022 in this article is provided by the CSO. However, 2023 crop area figures are based on preliminary figures from the Department of Agriculture and yield and production figures are from the Teagasc Harvest Report 2023.