20 June 1998

SUCCESS IS A GOOD SEEDBED

Ben Measures: High output system copes with expanding acres.

How do you get oilseed rape off to a good start in a suitable seedbed? A couple of Midlands growers have firm ideas of their own.

LOSING the moisture needed for good germination and establishment is the inevitable but avoidable result of recreational tillage.

Two Midlands farmers believe they have hit their germination and establishment targets through minimal cultivations which enable them to reduce crop establishment costs as well as achieve their agronomic aims.

Ben Measures manages about 890ha (2,200 acres) – including 182ha of oilseed rape – from Hemington Lodge Farm, near Oundle, North-amptonshire. Most of this land is in a single block at Hemington, with other pieces at Sawtry and Conington, either side of the A1 six miles away.

In Nottinghamshire, Peter White includes a significant acreage of oilseeds in the 506ha (1,250 acres) he manages for K Mawer & Co at Leyfields Farm, Kneesall, near Newark, Nottinghamshire.

A new high output arable system has been introduced by Mr Measures to cope with a steadily increasing acreage. His system is based around a CAT Challenger tractor and an 8m Simba Freeflow drill chosen for its ability to work in weathered seedbeds and maintain accuracy where there is a significant level of trash. It enables him to cut pre-drilling cultivations, and achieve better timeliness.

"We want to be drilled up by early October, because we lose 1cwt of yield each week for every week after that date we drill," says Mr Measures.

"We can cover 200 acres a day in our bigger fields, which gives us the capacity to complete everything in time, even if conditions turn against us. We could take on extra acres if the opportunity presented itself."

Emergence

This years oilseed crops look very well, thanks to excellent emergence last autumn. "Even emergence is crucial. It brings so many benefits, and if you do not achieve it you can never really repair it later. It gives us a more even crop throughout the season, making it easier to time all the other inputs, particularly sprays which have to be used at particular growth stages. Even crops are also less prone to winter pigeon damage."

In consultation with his agronomist, he cut seed rates by 10% last autumn, with no noticeable detriment on plant stands. Rape seed rates were set at 7-8 kg/ha, and he feels the drills efficiency gives him the potential to trim these further – possibly to 5.5-6 kg/ha.

"The drill maintained even drilling depth, and the rear roller consolidates the seedbed efficiently. In previous years we rolled once or twice behind the drill. Last autumn some of the land was not rolled at all and we still had excellent establishment, with virtually no slug damage."

Before oilseed rape they now run a Simba Tandem Mono – featuring a set of sub-soiling legs run between two sets of discs – to perform a deep soil loosening operation as well as incorporating the trash, followed by discs and press in the same operation, and then the drill.

"We only get 20in rainfall a year, and even though our chalky boulder clay does hold moisture very well, we can suffer establishment problems in dry autumns. Moisture retention is important, so we aim to complete all the cultivations as soon after harvest as possible."

Oilseed rape is drilled at 10-12mm depth, with a half-dose of slug pellets, and another half-dose at emergence if needed.

In Nottinghamshire, Peter White has cut cultivation costs from £114/ha (£46/acre) using a conventional, plough-based system, to £76/ha (£31/acre) using minimal techniques. While the £37/ha saving is valuable enough, he claims other benefits.

"We also achieve better timeliness, better crop establishment, more even germination, more accurate autumn chemical applications, reduced seed costs, and reduced slug damage – the list goes on and on," he says.

Tillage

Mr White follows the ECOtillage system, designed by Simba and Monsanto. Seedbed cultivations are completed, the weeds and volunteers are allowed to chit before being sprayed off, with the crop then being drilled into this stale seedbed.

For oilseed rape, Mr White starts with a five-legged Simba Flat Liner subsoiler to open up and aerate the Keuper marl soil, which tends to slump. Discs and a double press complete seedbed preparation, before letting weeds and volunteers chit, spraying them off and then drilling.

"We always sub-soil before oilseed rape, working at about 14in deep and covering 45 acres a day," he says. "Sub-soiling is essential to retain soil structure and help rooting and drainage."

"One field contains Marl, a band of sand/silt and an area of foul, heavy clay. With the old drill we could see the crop emerge over a whole week. Now it comes up evenly right down the length of the field. The Freeflow puts the seed at a consistent depth, and retains moisture in the seedbed.

"This quicker emergence helps reduce slug damage to all crops. They have less chance to attack the seed because the plants reach two-leaf stage much quicker. The evenness of the crop in the autumn enables chemical applications to be made at exactly the right time, so they are more effective, and we have the potential to reduce application rates."

Peter White: Even germination, timeliness, and reduced seed costs are part of his strategy.