4 September 1999

Drill on savings

GROWERS can make significant savings in the cost of crop establishment by adopting a less rigid approach to drilling operations across the farm.

The ability to reduce costs by cutting the time and number of passes taken to drill the next crop is well within the reach of all growers of combinable crops, believes senior ADAS mechanisation consultant, John Bailey.

"Concerns over possible yield reductions must be respected but should not deter farmers from taking a close look at more efficient and cost-effective methods of crop establishment," comments Mr Bailey.

This need has become increasingly important as returns have fallen. At £80/t for wheat, the average cereal farm with fixed and variable costs totalling £800/ha needs yields close to 10t/ha just to break even before subsidies. With machinery and labour accounting for 60% of fixed costs, it is clear that these are two major areas where savings must be made if the business is to survive.

A first step in reducing drilling costs is to decide how many days are needed to sow the main autumn crops, normally winter wheat and winter barley.

"For this, one must establish the dates that drilling has to start and end. An early start allows more time for drilling, but far less time for primary cultivations. A late start often means a rush to get the job done before the weather closes in and yields start to suffer.

"Aim to select economically viable equipment capable of covering the main acreage in the shortest possible time, drilling all crops at the correct depth across a wide range of soil types and seedbed conditions to ensure optimum establishment and growth."

Work rates

For example, anyone who starts drilling their main cereal acreage in mid-September ought to have completed the job by mid-October. Allowing for inclement weather, the total number of days available in most years will be between 20 and 25.

"Multiplying the number of working days by the daily drill work rate shows how many hectares the drill is able to complete in the time. For example, a 4m power harrow drill combination covering 12ha in a long working day has the ability to drill 240ha or almost 600 acres in 20 days. This is a respectable to high work rate, delivering time savings of 25% compared with a system where the power harrow and drill are employed separately."

Combining secondary cultivation and drilling operations into a single pass is one way of reducing time, labour requirements and costs, while helping to combat the likelihood of weather adversely affecting the soil.

Other factors which need to be considered when looking to save time – and costs – during drilling include the systems potential daily work rate, the number of people carrying out the task and the drills output, hopper capacity and the back-up available to ensure fast turnaround on the headland.

"Staff motivation and ability play an important part in achieving the maximum possible daily work rate from a specific machine," comments Mr Bailey."I have been on farms where drilling operations are 30% faster than on another using the same drill and the same number of people.

"There are many advantages to a single driver system, for example, early starts and late shifts, which become far more difficult to manage when two or more people are involved."

The number of operations and time taken to complete the job have a direct impact on overall cost, as Mr Bailey explains: "Consider the one extreme of a traditional plough and air drill system. The land is ploughed, power harrowed, rolled, power harrowed again, drilled and then rolled. Typical total time is up to 220 man minutes per hectare at a cost of about £110/ha.

"At the other extreme is direct drilling, where total cost, including the chemicals and their application, direct drilling and rolling amounts to around £53/ha and the time taken is only 48 man min/ha. This is a saving of almost three hours per hectare, equivalent to eight weeks of hard labour for one tractor and driver on 200ha."

Despite the staggering difference in establishment costs and time between the two systems, Mr Bailey does not advocate a wholesale move by growers into direct drilling.

"Most farms need and can only reasonably afford one drill which must be able to handle all of the combinable crops in all seasons, capable of coping with wet or dry conditions and clean or trashy seedbeds," he explains. "This provides a good opportunity for contract direct drilling, whenever the season and conditions are appropriate."

The alternative, he believes, is more widespread use of scratch and drill techniques.

Between the two establishment extremes, Mr Bailey says that there are well-tried combination systems capable of bringing significant overall time savings in final seedbed preparation and drilling without causing undue risk to yields.

Lower cost

For example, ploughing followed by a 4m power harrow drill consumes around150 man min/ha while times of 100 man min/ha are commonplace for a plough and 6m cultivator drill system.

"The cultivator drill market has expanded in recent years with the introduction of lower cost and lighter tractor-mounted 3m and 4m units requiring less power than the wider and heavier trailed cultivator drill," says Mr Bailey.

"Replacing an ageing and well-depreciated air drill with a new and relatively expensive cultivator drill unit means that initial cost savings are quite small at around £10 to £15 a hectare," he concludes. "However, the potential time savings are enormous, as well as the prospect of making good cost savings in the medium to long term. It is quite feasible to save 50 man min/ha in the autumn, with the knock-on cost benefits of reduced tractors and staff numbers over the whole year.

"Although many people find it hard to take the first step, increasing pressure on costs and income leaves them with no other alternative."