31 May 2002

Choosing your tillage tool

Cultivation campaigns may

seem a long way off but now

is the time to start thinking

about when, where and

which tillage tools to deploy.

Andrew Swallow reports

from a recent Morley

Research Centre event

LOOK for savings in cultivation costs this autumn, but beware of locking into a single system or over-stretching management skills.

That is the unanimous message given by a host of experts gathered at a recent Morley Research Centre cultivations demonstration event in Norfolk.

"You have to be flexible in your approach," says independent soil consultant Bryan Davies. "There is great scope to reduce tillage in combinable crop rotations, but that must not be at the expense of yield.

"The management requirement of min-till or direct drill systems is several notches higher than with plough-based systems, and unless you can be confident of putting that in, keep away from it."

He suggests growers edge into reduced tillage establishment techniques, trying some deeper non-plough tillage first. If that is successful then shallower and faster techniques may be tried the following season.

However, assessing the structure of the soil is essential to determine the most appropriate establishment method.

"March to early May, when soils are moist, is the best period to examine land and to decide what tillage is needed. Only if harvest is wet will it be necessary to look again."

Suffolk-based farm manager James Moldon, who conducts cultivations work with Morley at Stanaway Farm, Otley, echoes that.

"Before cultivating anything get the spade or even a digger out and have a look at the soil and sub-soil. I know it is difficult to find the management time to do this but it is important – no one is going to thank you the following harvest when yield suffers if you dont."

And yield remains king, stresses ADASs John Bailey. "You might save £20/ha in operating costs but you can lose £20/ha in yield through poor cultivation in the blink of an eye."

Core cultivation and drilling kit is usually best owned but tackle required for one-off operations on exceptional fields should be begged, borrowed or contracted to avoid escalating fixed costs, he adds.

"Attempt reduced tillage or direct drilling with the easier crop entries first. Start with wheat after peas, beans, or perhaps oilseed rape; crops where there is not much straw to get in the way.

"The last thing to try is second wheat because of all the trash and the risk of grass weeds."

Morleys Jim Orson warns growers with difficult grass weeds to be wary of moving away from the plough.

"I dont believe stale seed-beds alone will get you out of trouble. If you have a rotation where the blackgrass and brome is under control then more min-till is fine, but you cant afford that if it leads to more grass weed problems. You will end up spending a fortune on herbicides."

Mr Moldon takes that threat so seriously at Stanaway Farm, which he manages for the Felix Thornley Cobbold Agricultural Trust, that the rotation is revised rather than risk an emerging grass weed problem getting out of hand.

"If we have bad brome or blackgrass in a first wheat field we immediately switch to a spring break crop to clean it up rather than risk growing a second wheat."

Spraying off a stale seed-bed in the autumn, followed by ploughing and a further pass with glyphosate before drilling in the spring produces a remarkably clean seed-bed, he notes.

That flexible attitude is the key to success with reducing cultivations, he believes. &#42