Tillage farming’s carbon footprint is much lower than livestock production and it has huge potential to store more carbon in the soil. That’s well documented and there are aims to increase tillage area, but action is needed.

This is why the Food Vision tillage report needs to be acted on quickly and why an injection of money will be needed to support the sector, along with some legislation changes.

In this year’s Climate Action Plan, the importance of tillage is emphasised, but much of the information has been contained in previous plans. In the meantime, tillage and vegetable farmers are going out of business or their business is being reduced in size to take away scale.

The target in that plan remains to increase the tillage area to 400,000ha by 2030. However, on the ground tillage farmers are losing land, and the tillage area is estimated to have declined by 5,600ha this year and cereal area by over 10,000ha.

Ambitious targets need funding

Two targets which have changed are the area of land targeted at cover crops and straw incorporation. The cover crop target has changed since the 2023 plan from 25,000ha to be planted in 2025 to 45,000ha and from 50,000ha to be planted in 2025 to 75,000ha in 2030.

There are currently about 40-50,000ha planted, but only about 60% of this is under a scheme. There is no sign of a new scheme at present. Farmers are now locked into ACRES, so if area is to increase then funding will be needed. There will also need to be more joined up thinking to make it easier for livestock to graze these crops.

The Straw Incorporation target has also increased under the new plan from an aim to incorporate 35,000ha of cereal straw in 2025 to a target of 60,000ha by 2025.

The 2030 target has increased from 55,000ha of cereal straw to 85,000ha in 2030. The first target was exceeded in 2023 with 56,700ha of cereal straw originally down for chopping and a total of approximately 70,000ha down for the chop, including oilseed rape straw.

Last year, the Straw Incorporation Measure was oversubscribed and extra funding was found to fund the scheme. Its budget is set at €10m for each year of the current CAP and another €2.3m was needed last year.

In order to meet the new targets and keep farmers interested in the scheme, the budget will most likely need to increase.

CAP funding

One message that is repeated over and over in this year’s Climate Action Plan report is that the Food Vision 2023 report from the tillage sector needs to be acted on. Another repeated message is the need to “continue to support capital investments in the tillage sector in the CSP [CAP Strategic Plan]”.

Straw incorporation targets have been increased in the Climate Action Plan.

Let’s be clear: the capital investment grants for tillage in the CSP are much less than other sectors. Livestock farmers can access supports to set up their business from milking parlours and bulk tanks to sheep fencing. Tillage farms, which the authorities are trying to increase in area, can’t even get a trailer – a basic necessity to transport grain and set up a tillage enterprise on a farm.

So, the word “continue” will need to change to “increase” if targets are to be met. If we continue to do the same thing we’ve always done we’ll continue to get the same result.

The CAP budget is divided out and while there is potential for underspends in some schemes, funding will be needed from the National Exchequer.

What about the declining area?

These targets were relatively modest in previous reports and have now been dramatically increased when tillage area is under pressure. It’s welcome as it should bring payments to tillage farmers and very importantly store carbon in the soil.

However, there seems to be a misunderstanding of what is happening on the ground. Tillage area is estimated to decrease this year by 5,600ha.

More land has left tillage farms and, in many cases, has gone to dairy, as the sector has been able to compete at higher prices in the land rental market and needs land to meet nitrates requirements or else decrease animal numbers.

Many of these farms have planted maize, beet or cereal crops on the land they have rented. This means tillage farmers are losing land, but the tillage area might not show as big a loss as some other farms are sowing tillage crops.

So, a skillset is being underutilised. Tillage farmers’ skills are not being utilised.

Those livestock farmers will most likely keep the straw for their own use and many will not grow cover crops or will not be able to plant cover crops on land from late-harvested crops like maize.

If the grant for slurry storage was approved it may help to improve the circular economy. Yes, the grant is likely to have low uptake, but the idea behind it is good. An agreement needs to be in place between the importer of organic manure and the person producing the slurry in order to receive the grant.

This can lead to slurry being imported and a crop being grown. It frees up the land and allows tillage farmers to use their skillset and grow the best crops possible.

Writing about increasing tillage area, straw incorporation and cover crops is all well and good, but where will all the land come from?

‘Scope’ for additional land?

The 2024 Climate Action Plan says: “There is scope to increase the area under tillage, despite increasing land competition from the dairy sector.”

Where is the scope? Where is all this land going to come from? There will only be scope if tillage farmers can get access to land and if real regulations can be brought in from Government to support tillage.

It doesn’t have to be a payment. Why is there no reward to use Irish grain in animal feed? Why are Teagasc, Bord Bia and ICBF allowed to launch Ag Nav without solid figures on animal feed?

How can you accurately estimate the carbon footprint of meat or milk without accurate animal feed figures?

And why is the technical file of Irish whiskey untouchable? Why is it okay to produce Irish whiskey from grain produced anywhere in the world?