Pillar II funding has plenty of potential to do good for the environment and for farm sustainability.

It can help the farming sector to meet climate targets and tackle the biodiversity crisis, while improving farm incomes.

However, it is important that these measures make practical sense to farmers and that they can have a positive impact, both for the farmer and the surrounding environment.

In the past, some of these measures felt as though they were put in place just to tick a box. While these measures should not be too onerous on a farmer, they should show benefit.

With this in mind, the measures suggested here might make sense in the new Agri-Environment and Climate Measure (AECM) under Pillar II.

While tillage was left out of the environmental pilot scheme in 2021 – REAP – we hope it will feature strongly in the measures in the new scheme.

Catch crops

Catch crops were an extremely positive measure under GLAS and should be continued in the next scheme.

Farmers were beginning to see the benefit in the condition of their land as this takes time. This time, the measure might also include catch or green cover crops planted ahead of winter crops.

These measures will provide soil cover, help to prevent nutrient loss, soil structure will be improved by the different rooting structrues and the plants help to sequester carbon.

If the break crop option in the eco schemes becomes widely used, we will need more work on crop species by the seed industry to provide alternative planting options, as brassicas like forage rape will not be an option where winter oilseed rape is being grown.

Allowing animals to graze these crops is also useful as it promotes the integration of farming systems and can help to benefit soil health and fertility when carried out correctly, in suitable conditions and with light stock.

Over-winter stubble

Over-winter stubble has huge benefits for many bird species, insects and other types of wildlife. There has been a decline in bird species associated with tillage as the tillage area has declined and there has been a move from spring to winter planting in recent decades.

It is important to have some proportion of undisturbed stubble over winter as this can provide a habitat for birds such as skylark, lapwing and reed bunting.

If the new nitrates rules will not allow for areas of over-winter stubble, there could be a measure for skylark plots. In the UK, farmers leave 16sq m patches in winter crops for skylarks. However, crows are not as big an issue there and they would most likely attack crops that carry these specialist plots here in Ireland.

However, such plots could be located in green cover or cover crops here in Ireland.

That said, if we are to stop a massive decline in bird numbers, we may need to leave much larger plots. Research is needed into this area.

Area for bees

In GLAS, farmers could place a mound of sand on their farm in order to attract bees. However, there was no real scientific proof that this measure would attract bees as it is not a natural habitat.

Scraping banks around the farm to leave bare soil can be very useful to attract bees and provide a habitat for them. Such a measure would be easy to implement and could be carried out in a number of spots around a farm.

Arable margins

Arable margins were another good option in GLAS and should be continued.

The margin can help to rejuvenate headlands of fields, while providing a habitat and corridor for wildlife and food for pollinators.

There was mention of an unharvested headland measure which might be appealing ahead of a spring-sown crop.

Minimum tillage

The previous GLAS also had a measure on minimum tillage.

This is a welcome measure and it can encourage farmers to try some version of minimum tillage and to see how it works for them.

However, it remains important for farmers to “fix” their soils before going to min-till rather than expecting min-till to do that for them.

It is also important to allow a rotational option for such a measure to enable cultural control of grass weeds if they begin to build up.

On-Farm Investment Scheme for tillage

Tillage has extremely low emissions on a per-hectare basis and a low environmental footprint. The Government has said it wants to maintain and increase the area under tillage, but at present it is difficult for farmers to enter tillage as there is a lack of support on some basic equipment.

It is important to remember that a substantial proportion of tillage land is on farms that are hovering close to 30ha in size.

If there is to be an increase in tillage area the reality is that this will not come from farmers switching their whole farms from livestock to tillage.

It will come from livestock farmers moving small areas to tillage or tillage farmers taking some of their grassland and putting it into tillage.

In order for tillage area to increase, farmers will need to have some of their own equipment.

Much of the focus in TAMS for tillage farmers has been on high-tech equipment.

For example, if a fertiliser spreader is to be grant-aided it needs to be capable of variable rate spreading and sprayers need to have at least rate control, with GPS as the gold standard. This is great. After all, it is a modernisation scheme, but for anyone coming into tillage with relatively small acreages, a fertiliser spreader costing €40,000 is just not practical.

What is very unclear in TAMS is why a grant can be given for a milk tank and not a grain trailer. It does not have to be a fancy milk tank with bells and whistles, nor does a new parlour have to have extra gadgets.

It can, of course, but at present it does not and while the number of farmers who might purchase a combine on TAMS may be small, it is unclear what the difference is between a milking parlour and a combine harvester in relation to grant eligibility. Both harvest produce.

What is the difference between a weighbridge and a weighing scales for animals?

If the Government is going to take its commitment to the tillage sector seriously, dramatic changes need to happen under the new On-Farm Investment Scheme which will replace TAMS in the new CAP. Farmers need support and encouragement to convert land to tillage.

In short

  • Now is the time for officialdom to consider some real incentives to help promote tillage and its many benefits.
  • Catch or cover crops, arable margins and non-inversion establishment should remain among the options to help bring improvement to soil health.
  • Grant aid for more basic equipment should be available in the new On-farm Investment Scheme if smaller growers are to be incentivised to put some of their land into tillage crops.