15 August 1997

SOIL MIX POSES CHALLENGE

Shuttleworth Farm in Beds is the host for Cultivations 97 – this years national field demonstration of cultivation and drilling equipment. Charles Abel asks host farm manager Brian Welti to explain his strategy

SLASHING establishment costs is a priority for every arable farmer in the land.

But when soil types vary hugely and there is a range of crops to establish how on earth can that be achieved?

That is the dilemma facing Brian Welti, centre director and farms manager at Shuttleworth College, host farm for the East of England Agricultural Societys Cultivations 97 event.

"We have everything from green sand to brick clay on the farm – it really is very mixed," he notes. Cropping ranges from winter wheat and barley to grass and maize for silage, sugar beet and potatoes. It all points to one conclusion – a wide range of equipment is vital if suitable seed-beds are to be prepared whatever the soil type and season.

If that sounds like a recipe for huge overheads you are mistaken. A judicious policy of buying second-hand, refurbishing equipment in the workshop and matching machines to conditions to cut field passes is helping control costs.

Average establishment costs last autumn were £75/ha, £70.25/ha and £48/ha for wheat, barley and rape respectively. Those figures include several fields which needed a spring roll for consolidation and some small areas of rape re-drilling. Contractor sub-soiling costs of £32/ha are not included.

Those averages conceal huge variations. Winter wheat, for example, cost £98/ha to establish in Office Field. Dutch harrow, plough and power harrow were all deployed to cope with heavy conditions. By contrast Ickwell Crossroads cost just £59/ha to plough, medium cultivate, drill and roll.

"The key is to do what is needed to establish the crop properly, but to spend as little as possible doing that," says Mr Welti. Second-hand equipment plays a key role in meeting that goal.

"The last time we bought a new piece of cultivations tackle was six years ago and that was a 6m Kuhn power harrow which is kept as a tool of last resort. Some years we need it to create a seed-bed in heavy ground. But we try to avoid that."

Last year the cultivations system was widened to increase outputs, using second-hand equipment, mainly from farm sales. "A typical example was a 4.5m Dutch harrow which we put into the sale and the 6m version we bought to replace it. The total net cost was £525, so depreciation really is not an issue for us."

Tractor costs are held down by hiring the main workhorse. A 200hp machine does 6-8 weeks of heavy ploughing and sub-soiling for £600/week. "If we bought the same machine new annual depreciation would add up to over four times that for each weeks work."

With a good range of tackle to draw from Mr Welti then aims to match cultivations to individual fields, allowing for previous cropping, soil conditions and the season. "Its no good having a blueprint – youve got to give each field what it needs."

Having said that there are three key rules for establishing cereals:

&#8226 Land after potatoes, rape and maize is always sub-soiled to remove compaction.

&#8226 Land after rape is ploughed and pressed – "we have the time and it gets the trash buried."

&#8226 Land after cereals is generally minimum cultivated.

Two ploughs are used – a five furrow Rabe vari-width with slatted mouldboards and a four furrow Kverneland with conventional mouldboards. "There is no doubt certain plough bodies suit certain conditions," Mr Welti insists. The Rabe finds favour on heavier land, the slatted mouldboards sifting soil through in dry conditions and breaking furrow slices in the wet.

Pressing is routine. "It saves a cultivator pass, cutting labour and fuel costs." In last years dry conditions the SKH crumbler roller was enough to break ploughed/ pressed land down to a near perfect seed-bed in one pass, Mr Welti notes. A press to follow the discs is now being considered too.

Once heavy land after rape has been ploughed cultivations hinge around weather conditions. One or two passes with light discs, a tine and then drilling usually suffices. Drilling is with a 6m Accord conventional drill or a 4m Bettinson drill. The latter was kept as an insurance policy which paid off three years ago in wet conditions on the heavy land.

Light land waiting for barley is always ploughed. "We havent had much success with minimum cultivations, the stubble just bunches in the seed-bed." The ploughing is done soon after harvesting, to allow a weed flush. "Theres a risk of moisture loss, but less than on the heavy land and we can always work it again later. On the heavy land we leave the ploughing until as close to drilling as possible."

Minimum cultivations typically involve a pass with the 5-leg v-form sub-soiler to take out tramlines, two discings and then a levelling operation with spring tines or the SKH crumbler.

Although establishment costs are felt to be under control, Mr Welti is keen to keep the pressure on. Precision farming techniques should help target sub-soiling more accurately and allow seed rates to be matched to yield potential and seed-bed conditions within each field, he reasons.

But a more immediate goal is to reduce the number of passes across each field. That will cut labour and fuel bills and reduce equipment wear. "With that in mind tillage trains will be a key area of interest for us at Cultivations 97. Ill be interested to see just how well they cope with our sort of land," concludes Mr Welti. &#42

A range of cultivators is vital to cope with diverse soil types at Shuttleworth Farms, says Brian Welti. Buying second-hand helps keep costs low.

Slatted mouldboards on the Rabe plough make for a good finish, with pressing accelerating seed-bed preparation, says Mr Welti.


Typical establishment costs

£/ha

W wheat

Oct 10 plough31.00

Oct 12 disc10.00

Oct 22 med/light cult10.00

Oct 23 drill11.00

Oct 23 roll7.00

Total69.00

W barley

Sept 17 plough31.00

Sept 24 dutch

harrow10.00

Sept 26 drill11.00

Sept 28 roll7.00

Total59.00

W rape

Aug 22 disc x 220.00

Sept 5 s tine harrow8.00

Sept 6 drill11.00

Sept 8 roll7.00

Total46.00

SHUTTLEWORTH FARM

&#8226 508ha, 405ha arable.

&#8226 Cropping: 102ha w wheat, 89ha w barley, 55ha w rape, plus maize, potatoes, beet.

&#8226 Green sand to brick clay.

&#8226 1996 w wheat estab costs ranged from £59-98/ha.

&#8226 Equipment: 2 x 120hp John Deere, 2 x 115hp MF, plus 200hp hired for 6-8 weeks.

&#8226 Tillage train wanted.

&#8226 Precision farming set to cut costs by targeting sub- soiling, seed rates and cultivations better.