The area of UK crops established by minimum tillage continues to expand as growers seek to trim costs, a recent survey* suggests.

Two-thirds of the 112 respondents to a study on behalf of independent Cotswolds-based consultant Steve Townsend say they have increased the practice substantially in the past five years.

And of those not already using it, 70% were planning to do so.

Winter oilseed rape is the crop most often set entirely by minimum tillage, 82% of growers opting for that route. Only 63% of cereal growers rely solely on the technique.

“Unsurprisingly, the extent of minimum tillage employed varies widely between growers,” says Mr Townsend.

But the majority (59%) now min-till all their cereals and oilseed rape, he notes.

The practice is clearly less popular for pulses, 35% of growers relying totally or almost entirely on ploughing to establish them.

The survey, which accounts for more than 61,000ha (150,700 acres) of cropping, divides respondents into “old hands”, who have mainly employed min-till for at least five years, and “newcomers”.

Average farm size is 550ha (1360 acres), but min-tillers generally have bigger areas, with a mean of 660ha (1630 acres).

“Again, unsurprisingly perhaps, a greater proportion of them (69%) are completely committed to the technique than either the sample as a whole or relative newcomers.”

The finding that plenty of growers operate their min-till regimes without a tractor, drill or cultivator younger than five years old suggests that the technique in itself does not demand major extra machinery investment, he adds.

Tine-based equipment overall is the most popular approach, accounting for 47% of all min-till cultivators, with discs on 38% and combination machines representing just 15%.

Soil structure

Reducing establishment costs is clearly the key reason for employing min-tillage, according to the survey, being highlighted by 80% of all users.

But improving soil structure is also an attraction, being mentioned by 62%.

Other firm reasons pinpointed include cutting machinery costs and more timely cultivations.

“Regardless of the extent of their commitment to the practice or their relative experience with it, cutting establishment costs stands out as the clear number-one priority for all min-tillers,” says Mr Townsend.

Complete min-tillers and “old hands” not unnaturally appreciate the technique’s benefits, notably quicker cultivations, more than “newcomers” and partial min-tillers.

“More than nine in every 10 complete min-tillers, for instance, find they have been able to reduce both establishment costs and speed up cultivations, with 80% or more improving soil structure, achieving more timely cultivations and lowering per-hectare labour costs.”

The main downside, pinpointed by 54% of respondents, is extra trouble from grassweeds.

But the fact that only 45% find higher herbicide costs an issue suggests these are by no means an inevitable consequence, he says.

Only about a quarter consider such things as increased trash and slug problems and greater weather risk as significant drawbacks.

And fewer than 15% see a need for more subsoiling, or expect lower crop output, poorer seed-beds or increased soil damage.

“This clearly shows the overwhelming majority of min-tillers are encountering few problems as far as subsoiling, yields, seed-bed quality and soil damage are concerned.

Weed problems

“Those practising minimum tillage across their entire cereals and oilseed rape areas report a similar incidence of increased grassweed problems (56%) to those only partially min-tilling (52%).”

Interestingly, says Mr Townsend, half of the partial min-tillers expect to spend more on herbicides, but only 41% of those who have wholly embraced the concept expect to do so.

“It suggests they [the latter] are addressing the problem better through their agronomy.”

This is underlined by the fact that increased trash problems among complete min-tillers, at 23%, are also perceived as noticeably less than among those partially min-tilling (37%), as is the need for more subsoiling (3% as against 30%).

There is almost universal agreement that minimum tillage saves labour costs.

Most (89%) also see noticeable savings in machinery costs.

“Again, those most committed to the practice find markedly greater savings than those using it partially, almost certainly because the latter are still maintaining two sets of establishment equipment.”

* For the full survey report click here

andrew.blake@rbi.co.uk