For many growers, crop establishment is a matter of balancing costs against results – seeking out the best and most economical system available. Andy Collings compares the costs involved and discovers some interesting facts.

There was a time when land was ploughed, disced, drilled and rolled and the gate was shut.

But then came low commodity prices and with it, a need to find less expensive ways of establishing crops. As a result, the term ‘min-till’ entered our lives.

We had to get used to drilling into seed beds that looked as if they had only been scuffled – which indeed they had – and tolerate surface residues that would have had grandfather turning in his grave.

The industry has now become used to such methods that reduce input costs but hopefully not at the expense of yield reduction or the multiplication of black grass populations.

The question is whether min-till systems, with their combinations of discs, tines and presses along with the large, powerful and expensive tractors needed to pull them, are actually cheaper to operate than a conventional plough-based system.

cultivation

It seemed a good question to ask and David Watson, the Co-operative Farms operations manager, seemed a good man to ask. Responsible for over-seeing the Co-operative managed farms located in the southern half of the country – Mr Watson has the responsibility for many thousands of acres with a wide variety of soil types and cropping opportunities.

“It’s very difficult to be specific and suggest that any one system is right and another is wrong,” he says. “There are so many considerations that need to be taken into account, such as soil structure weed problems, acreage and so on – and even these can change from one year to the next. Probably the best way is to start by comparing the costs of different crop establishment systems.”

Mr Watson is the first to concede that costing out operations such as ploughing or discing is never going to be straightforward and results will always be open for debate.

But the object of this exercise is to compare costs of establishment systems, rather than to attempt to be specific with the actual running costs of individual pieces of equipment. After all, no two farms are alike and costs such as labour, depreciation and repair costs will differ accordingly.

For the purpose of this exercise the depreciation of implements is a straight write-off over five years to a residual value of 20% and annual repair costs are an average of the expenditure over the five years.

Labour is costed at £12.50/hour, fuel at 57p/litre and the tractor – a John Deere 8420 – at £10/hour. All costs are £/hectare.

Drawing on Co-operative farms’ data, accumulated over many thousands of acres, we have compared the costs of three systems – plough-based, min-till and, for good measure, a full mix of subsoiler, plough and powerharrow/drill system.

Clearly, there is the opportunity to pick and mix individual operations to suit conditions, although it is unlikely that many farms will enjoy the luxury of having a barn full of different implements to draw upon.

 

System 1: Plough, cultipress and drill

Ploughing, six-furrow mounted: 14.55

  • Fuel: 11.40
  • Tractor: 5.55
  • Labour: 7.02
  • Total: £38.52/ha

Cultipress 6m: 3.44

  • Fuel: 3.99
  • Tractor: 1.85
  • Labour: 2.33
  • Total: £11.61/ha

Drill: Vaderstad 8m: 5.20

  • Fuel: 9.69
  • Tractor: 2.22
  • Labour: 2.77
  • Total: £19.88/ha

System 1 total: £70.01/ha

 

System 2: Simba Solo, glyphosate spray, drill

Simba Solo 6m: 7.44

  • Fuel: 11.97
  • Tractor: 2.38
  • Labour: 2.92
  • Total: £24.71/ha

Sprayer John Deere trailed 24m 3.50

  • Fuel: 1.75
  • Tractor: 0.83
  • Labour: 1.04
  • Chemical: 10
  • Total: £17.12/ha

Drill: Vaderstad 8m: 5.20

  • Fuel: 9.69
  • Tractor: 2.22
  • Labour: 2.77
  • Total: £19.88/ha

System 2 total: £61.71/ha

 

System 3: Subsoiler, plough, powerharrow/drill, press

Subsoiler 3-leg: 11.00

  • Fuel: 10.26
  • Tractor: 6.67
  • Labour: 7.96
  • Total: £35.88/ha

Ploughing, six-furrow mounted: 14.55

  • Fuel: 11.40
  • Tractor: 5.55
  • Labour: 7.02
  • Total: £38.52/ha

Powerharrow/drill: 15.04

  • Fuel: 10.05
  • Tractor: 6.67
  • Labour: 7.96
  • Total: £39.72/ha

Press: 2.65

  • Fuel: 3.76
  • Tractor: 2.20
  • Labour: 2.50
  • Total: £11.11/ha

System 3 total: £125.23/ha

“The first point to note is that the plough-based system is not wildly different from the min-till system in this costing comparison,” says Mr Watson. “If it was just down to pound notes, there would appear to be no distinct advantage in one system or the other. What is different, though, is the output rate and it has to be said that where time is important, the min-till system will have the edge on the plough.”

He adds that for the control of blackgrass and other weed grasses, there may be a case for using a glyphosate spray in the plough-based system which would put a new light on the overall costs involved.

The high cost of the third system is, perhaps, a reminder of times when there was sufficient margin in cereal growing to use such methods. Even so, there are those who choose to take this route and believe it is the correct one to take for the long-term care of their land.

“The real message is that we need to be flexible in our approach to crop establishment and use the tools available as conditions dictate,” concludes Mr Watson.