4 September 1999

Profiting passes

It is still posssible to cut costs but not corners on cereal establishment and husbandry, as Sarah Henly reports.

PLOUGHING is not the panacea some would like to believe. It has come in third place behind direct drilling and minimal tillage in a trial comparing second wheat yields following different establishment techniques.

Although not the first result of its kind, it strengthens the case for reducing establishment costs at a time when continuous wheat faces an uphill struggle to remain profitable. If the trial is representative, adopting some form of minimal cultivation may well be a lifesaver for second wheats, believes Nick Poole, research co-ordinator for Arable Research Centres and HGCA project leader.

"Direct drilling into chopped straw isnt ideal, but we have shown subsequent yields can compare well with crops established by ploughing on two different soil types. It costs less than half the expense of ploughing, and we hope to allay fears that it could increase the cost of subsequent management."

Potential problems with direct drilling and minimal tillage include an increase in weed and disease levels. It may take a while for such problems, in particular grass weeds, to build up to significant levels. Those and other factors such as soil nitrogen reserves are being monitored by Dr Vic Jordans team at IACR Long Ashton, as part of the HGCA-funded trial.

However early results have illustrated that the greatest pressure from broadleaved weeds has been associated with ploughing and the lowest following direct drilling where soil disturbance was limited. In addition, it is the minimal tillage that last season lead to the worst problem with the grass weed, sterile brome.

The trial has also shown in its first year that minimum pass husbandry can be cost effective, even where low cost establishment techniques have been employed.

"On average, growers make seven to 10 trips down the tramlines in a season. We have compared seven, on the lean side of typical, with four and three passes, which represents the practical minimum. On some sites, three passes was more profitable than seven following direct drilling and minimal tillage," explains Mr Poole.

Spotlight

The finding is preliminary, and applies so far to the one wheat variety under the spotlight – Consort – a stiff strawed but not very disease resistant group 3 wheat. However it does suggest there is scope to substantially reduce the cost of application.

Where the use of a seed treatment to control take-all was employed, that created even better opportunities to cut back. Mr Poole explains the thinking behind using a product not yet on the market here.

"Looking ahead, we thought that it was essential to examine the effect of the experimental product MON65500 on yields and gross margins because it will be an option available to growers in the near future, and its use may well tip the balance in favour of fewer passes. Indeed, in some direct drilled plots, the difference in yield between three and seven passes narrowed with its use."

There was on average a yield response of around 9%, 11% and 13% to the Monsanto seed treatment following direct drilling, minimal tillage and ploughing respectively.

The figures look attractive. If the output from the direct drilled, three pass system was the same as from the ploughed, seven-pass system, as was the case in one of the two trials harvested last month, then the potential savings of the former would be about £30/ha on establishment costs, £30/ha on inputs (based on the cost of the products used in the trial), and £20/ha on application costs (assuming a conservative figure of £5/ha for each pass).

Cutting out unnecessary cultivations can save on establishment costs, particularly in less profitable second wheats. But how far should you go?

Last months harvest results suggest direct drilling is not too extreme on some sites. A comparison of three establishment techniques for second wheat saw direct drilling come out at least on an equal footing with ploughing, if not better.

The three techniques are:

&#8226 ploughing

&#8226 direct drilling into chopped straw

&#8226 minimal non-inversion tillage using a disc and press.

HGCA research aims to find out whether low cost establishment will commit you to spend more on the crop later.

How the treatments stack up on second wheat

Direct drilling – straight into chopped straw using a Väderstad Rapide cultivation drill in early October; cost about £20/ha

Minimal tillage – disc and press once then drill using Väderstad Rapide in early October; cost about £32/ha

Ploughing – plough and press in early October then drill using Väderstad Rapide in early October; cost about £49/ha