7 September 2001

No gain if you hang

on to excess tackle

REDUCED tillage can dramatically cut establishment costs. But growers must cut machinery and manpower if the full benefits are to be realised, says a leading independent consultant.

Too many growers are hanging on to ploughs, harrows and, worst of all, surplus tractors, says Steve Townsend.

"Unless you sell some equipment it will not save you any money. In some cases, where growers have kept all their tractors and old tackle and bought new machinery to go into min-till, costs have actually risen."

One grower who has heeded Mr Townsends advice is Jim McCarthy, who grows 800ha (2000 acres) of winter cereals around Castledermot in Co Kildare, Republic of Ireland.

A fleet of five 160-200hp tractors, pulling ploughs, presses, drill and rolls has been replaced by one 245hp machine, supported by the sprayer tractor to burn off stubbles.

"The depreciation and insurance alone on a tractor is £10,000, so we have saved £30,000 just on ownership. And you have got the fuel and maintenance on top of that."

Labour costs have also been slashed. "The man hours have dropped by about 70% because one man now does the whole lot with another for spraying. The savings have been dramatic."

Old tillage tackle has been sold and replaced with a 7.5m Horsch FG tined cultivator, a 6m Vaderstad Rapide drill and 10.5m set of ring-rolls.

But Mr Townsend stresses buying new equipment is not a prerequisite of going down the reduced tillage route. On many farms current cultivators, used with a little imagination and skill could be made to do all the work needed.

"It is something close to my heart that the concept of Eco-tillage does not need new equipment. What is required is care and understanding for the soil."

Ground should be worked as shallowly as possible. All that is needed is sufficient tilth for the drill to place seed at the target depth. Consolidation is vital post cultivation to make weeds and volunteers chit so that they can then be sprayed off prior to drilling.

Rotational ploughing should be avoided. Problem weeds are better tackled out of crop with glyphosate rather than risk ruining soil structure that has naturally rebuilt itself in the previous couple of years. "It is the worst thing you can do."

Worms working to depth, roots of previous crops and fissures formed as soils expand and contract do all the restructuring work required, he says.

All soils, including silts and sands, become more stable in time provided growers resist the temptation to do deep cultivations, he stresses. Compaction problems are brought to the surface where they can be dealt with in the primary cultivation.

"Tramlines cure themselves with this system. The over-riding need is to understand it takes two years to overcome the problems caused by deep cultivation." &#42