1 September 2000

Host weighs up the benefits of systems switch gfgfgfgfgfgfgfg

Will the host of the UKs

first Lo-Till event be inspired

to drop the plough and enjoy

the benefits of minimal

cultivations? Edward Long

visits Banbury to find out

THE imminent retirement of a member of the farm staff, an ageing drill that will soon have to be replaced, and the need to cut overhead costs has triggered an Oxon farmers thoughts of switching to the Lo-Till approach for establishing cereals and pulses.

"It is an option, but I know very little about the equipment needed or how it could cope with my land," says Mike Stevens, who with manager Robert Webb runs the 465ha (1150 acre) Manor Farm at Twyford near Banbury for JB Stevens & Son.

"That is why I am delighted to be hosting the Lo-Till event. If we are to spend £50,000 changing our system it is vital to make the right choice. A mistake could be a costly embarrassment and the event will provide a golden opportunity to see what kit is available and how it works on this farm."

Manor Farm comprises a mix of soils, 160ha (400 acres) of free-draining easy working ironstone, 80ha (200 acres) each of medium loam and alluvial silt, with the rest described as "liquorice allsorts".

Arable crops account for 344ha (850 acres). Half the wheat is Consort and Raleigh grown on seed contracts, the rest is Malacca, Rialto and Hereward drilled for value-added markets. The winter barley is all feed, while Clipper beans plus Samson and Eiffel peas are for seed.

The whole farm is ploughed every year with a five-furrow Kverneland behind a 135hp tractor to provide a clean start for the seed crops and keep grassweeds out of the rotation.

The ironstone is normally power harrowed once, with further passes sometimes needed on more difficult ground. Every fourth year a sub-tiller operating at 45cm (18 in) is used pre-drilling after a breakcrop to smash any developing plough pan.

"We can plough 25-30 acres in a good day on the best land, but elsewhere struggle to do 20 acres. Establishing cereals is a 2-man job at the moment, using a Concept air-assisted drill that can do around 50 acres a day.

"As it is a one-man operation the Lo-Till approach, if we can afford it, has some attraction. But not only would we have to invest in the right machine, we would also need a bigger tractor. I am concerned that this would involve putting too many eggs in the same basket, and have a horrible feeling that our chemical costs would rise."

A power harrow/combination drill can work at almost anytime, even in the rain, and there is no risk of rain spoiling the tilth of worked down land ahead of the drill, Mr Stevens says. A big Lo-Till machine would have to stay in the yard when soil conditions were poor to prevent the structure being ruined.

"It is crystal clear that a lot of patience would be required to keep off the land when it was not just right. That could be a real challenge in a wet autumn. We can use our existing drill at almost anytime on our easy working ironstone land, and after a frost the alluvial silt works down into an onion seed-bed."

The main concern is that by cutting out ploughing grassweeds could suddenly flare-up to wreck the farms seed production status. Regular ploughing has kept the farm clean and free from wild oats and almost blackgrass free.

If the decision to go ahead with the introduction of the Lo-Till approach at Manor Farm is made none of the existing cultivation kit will be dumped – it will be retained in working order to provide the flexibility to cope with a 1998-type autumn.

"With a man due to retire soon, the drill rapidly coming to the end of its days, and the need to cut costs Lo-Till does seem to have some useful advantages. But it is important to weigh these up against the potential disadvantages of reduced flexibility, an increased risk of soil compaction, and concerns that grass weeds could flourish," Mr Webb says. &#42

MANOR FARM

Farm size 465ha (1150 acres).

Arable 344ha (800 acres).

Cropping Wheat, winter barley, osr, winter beans, peas and maize.

Soils Ironstone, medium loam, alluvial silt plus others.

Cultivation/drilling kit 4m power harrow, 3.5m power harrow, 5-furrow Keverneland plough and 4m Concept air-assisted drill.

Lo-till needs to fit in with seed production goals at Manor Farm, Twyford, say event hosts Mike Stevens and Robert Webb.

STEVENS/WEBB: 10 POINTS TO CONSIDER WITH LO-TILL

&#8226 Lower labour requirement.

&#8226 Eased autumn workload bottleneck.

&#8226 Moisture saving in a dry time.

&#8226 Output gain in a wet year.

&#8226 Extra investment tied up in big cultivation equipment.

&#8226 Bigger tractor needed.

&#8226 Increased risk of compaction in a wet year.

&#8226 Loss of flexibility in a wet season.

&#8226 Increased grass weed threat.

&#8226 Two-year shake-down period needed before judging the new system.