15 August 1997

SOFTLY, SOFTLY, NO-TILL…

John Deeres No-Till Drill is a success in the US and Canada. But how is it faring in the UK? Mike Williams visited users to find out

SINCE first showing it in the UK four years ago John Deere has sold just 11 No-Till drills.

One reason for the slow start is that the drill represents a very different approach to crop establishment, says the manufacturer.

"This is not something we wanted to rush into," stresses David Whitworth of John Deere. "We have a lot to learn about using the No-Till Drill on different soils and for different crops.

"The results so far are encouraging. This years harvest will provide much more information and the results will certainly affect the way we market the drill in future."

As its name suggests, the No-Till Drill does not need a conventional seed-bed and is designed to work straight into stubble with no cultivation. A single disc opener which is pressurised by the tractors hydraulic system cuts a slice in which the pneumatic delivery system places the seed. This is then firmed into the soil by a press wheel and a closing wheel. The result is a substantial reduction in crop establishment costs.

That was the main attraction for Tim Barton. He farms 650ha (1600 acres) of combinable crops on a medium Cotswold brash at Wadswick Farms, Corsham, Wilts, and decided to try the drills cost-saving potential in a demonstration following the 1995 harvest.

The No-Till Drill was used to sow 69ha (170 acres) of cereals directly into a stubble which had been given a weed control spray, and some into conventionally cultivated soil. When the crops were harvested last year there was a slightly higher yield from the stubble drilled crop, prompting Mr Barton to buy a 3m version of the drill.

"You cant really draw too many conclusions from just one harvest, but it did give confidence that the drill would work on my land and allow some cost savings. We sowed about 800 acres with it last year, and my rough estimate is that it cut our establishment costs by about one-third," he says.

"Spraying the stubble with Sting and then using the No-Till Drill costs about £30/acre, and that compares with about £45 for ploughing, a pass with the power harrow and then using an ordinary drill."

This years crops sown with the John Deere drill are looking good, says Mr Barton. However, crops did not look so good in the winter with stubble still showing and the crop appearing to make a slow start.

Martin Smart, the foreman and drill operator at Wadswick Farms admits to getting worried. "I was very enthusiastic about the drill, and when the crops looked so poor to start with, I dont think I was very popular.

"Fortunately they seem to catch up in the spring and they are looking really good now. I think we could have a very good harvest."

Warwickshire farmer Alf Oliver also decided to switch to No-Till drilling last year following a successful demonstration the previous autumn.

He and his son – also Alf – have 607ha (1500 acres) of medium to heavy land at Upton, Nuneaton. The No-Till Drill offered a number of potential benefits, including a reduction in cultivation costs and the autumn work load.

"Another of our problems on this land is moisture retention, and the No-Till Drill does not expose the soil to moisture loss in the same way as ordinary cultivations," says Mr Oliver.

In a dry season it can also be difficult to plough or cultivate their heavier soil. But that was no problem for the No-Till drill when it was demonstrated on some of the farms heaviest land.

At the demonstration the machine surprised Mr Oliver with its ability to sow rape into hard conditions. Indeed, Mr Oliver had almost given up the idea of getting rape sown for harvest 1996. The demonstration was extended to sow the whole of the 100ha(250 acre) crop sown in two long days.

The results were so good the Olivers bought a 6m drill and 170hp tractor to handle it. This year Mr Oliver is harvesting 485ha (1200 acres) of wheat and rape sown with the new drill directly into stubble or ploughed land. Like other users, he noticed crops were slow to get away but caught up later, looking excellent in the weeks before harvest.

Farmer/contractor Bill Wright from Rothley, Leicester, has two 3m models, one for his own use and the other hired to another contractor. He has tried various techniques, including drilling straight into stubble and also into burned-off grass. For wheat after rape he has tried discing and pressing followed by a herbicide spray and then drilling.

"Generally the best results are from drilling into stubble or grass," he says. "But whatever you do the crops seem to be slow-growing to start with. I think this has something to do with the way the nitrogen is released from the soil, and the growth catches up later."

Two criticisms

Mr Wright is pleased with the performance of the drill, but has two criticisms. Mechanical bout markers have been replaced with foam markers and the spiked wheel has been moved from the drawbar – where it can get in the way when turning – to the back of the drill. John Deere has also introduced a modification on this.

"We have drilled about 1400 acres during the past 12 months. But I think this will tend to increase," he says. "We are getting a lot more interest from customers who are impressed by what they have seen so far."

Roger Baird, a member of the sales team at John Deere dealer, Netherseal Tractors, Earl Shilton, Leics, is also expecting increasing interest in the drill.

"I believe this is a very significant development in arable farming. It can make substantial cost savings, and the evidence so far is that yields are generally maintained. There is a risk that some farmers will confuse this with the old idea of direct drilling. But the two are completely different. The John Deere drill is far more flexible and versatile."n

NO-TILL DRILL

&#8226 Cautious UK uptake.

&#8226 New approach to drilling.

&#8226 No cultivations – seed slot cut by pressured disc.

&#8226 Winter appearance poor, but final yields similar.

&#8226 Cost savings possible

&#8226 Cost 3m £24,019, 6m £49,925.

Barley sown into wheat stubble with the John Deere drill.

Warks farmer Alf Oliver (left) with Roger Baird of Netherseal Tractors.

US success… 6m version of the No-Till drill working in uncultivated stubble. But what of the UK?

Contractor Bill Wright with one of his two 3m No-Till drills.