16 October 1999

Time to part with the plough?

Fancy cutting your cultivation costs in half? Jim Bullock has by adopting no-till drilling on his Worcs farm. Tom Allen-Stevens meets him.

CAST off your conventional cultivation clobber, its time to embrace the brave new world of no-till drilling. Exponents of the system say it can bring you huge savings in your fixed costs, more flexibility and enhanced ecological activity in your soils. All this for no yield penalty is the claim, but can you bear to part with your beloved, trustworthy plough?

Founder member of the Crops No-Till Drill Club, Jim Bullock agrees it can be a leap of faith, but one he is glad he made: "As the crop emerges through last years stubble it can look awful – not nearly as good as the neat and tidy rows that emerge through freshly turned soil. But come spring-time, it comes through just as well as a conventionally-cultivated crop, and we often end up with a greater yield."

In partnership with his parents and brother, Nigel, Jim farms a total of 320ha, including grassland and set-aside in the shadow of the Malvern Hills. The farm is strung out either side of Great Malvern, with the furthest fields six miles away from the central family farm. A total of 240ha is farmed under FBTs, with the rest owned by the family.

Soil structure is key to getting the no-till drilling to work. "You have to maintain a good, crumbly structure. Inspect the soil profile regularly by digging trial pits and taking core samples," advises Jim. Reduced tillage on their clay loams has encouraged the soil to form its own structure. This has led to more manageable soils that drain better and are not as soft; he has noticed tramlines are not as deep these days, despite the wet conditions of the past two years.

It has not been an overnight change, however, as Nigel points out: "Were going through a conversion period, rather like organic farmers. Its a gradual process to get the soil structure used to the new system. Meanwhile, youre concentrating on getting the top three inches right. There are farmers in the US weve met who adopted no-till drilling six or seven years ago and who are still trying to get the best out of that crucial top layer."

Less erosion is clearly a major ecological advantage of no-till drilling, but there are many more environmental benefits that come from not turning the soil; 80% of the earthworms in the top eight inches of the soil are said to be killed by conventional cultivations. The increased population in the no-till system plays a vital role in breaking down the trash.

Less soil disturbance also encourages the build-up of flora and fauna, such as ground beetles, which can help control aphids, meaning a BYDV spray may not be needed. The over-wintered stubbles are a valuable cover and food source for ground-nesting birds. Meanwhile they spray less residual soil-acting herbicides, such as IPU, relying more on contact chemicals. Less chemical content in the soil also encourages bio-diversity.

Perhaps the most attractive side of no-till drilling is the opportunity to reduce fixed costs. Jim has found that the fuel costs are significantly lower: "During the busy cultivation period, we used to burn a tank of fuel every week. Nowadays we need only one fill-up every month. The fuel cost for the crop establishment is now just £1.24/ha/year, while the Land Rover uses up £4.30/ha/year, just inspecting the fields."

Savings

Naturally, labour costs are lower, too; the brothers believe theyve saved up to 85% on the man hours required on the farm. "If youre losing labour through retirement it can be an ideal opportunity to adopt a minimal cultivation system," notes Nigel. Because theyre running less machinery, there are fewer wearing parts to replace and a lower capital cost of replacing implements, as well as fewer tractors needed to pull them.

The opportunity has arisen to do a comparison of fixed costs between the old and new systems. They took on a non-IACS registered field on a reduced rental FBT (£50/acre) next door to some land they were already farming (paying a rent of £140/acre). The more expensive field was conventionally cultivated winter wheat after oilseed rape and received a full compliment of inputs. Meanwhile the same crop went in the non-IACS field, receiving the no-till treatment after oats with minimum inputs.

At 8.4t/ha, the no-till field actually yielded more at harvest and the grain was higher quality, despite following a non break crop. The conventional field yielded a tonne less at 7.4t/ha. In financial terms, the net return after rent was £371/ha for the no-till field and £353/ha for the other. "This proves to us that we can farm at world prices without subsidy, but only by using the non-tillage system," maintains Jim.

Farming at world prices would probably not work out so well with break crops, he concedes, a good rotation being an integral part of the success with no-till drilling. "We try to rotate white stubbles (cereals) with fragile stubbles that shatter (break crops) as much as possible."

Preparation for the new crop starts before harvest. A pre-harvest dose of glyphosate helps produce a clean, brittle stubble and is particularly useful before an early-sown crop, like oilseed rape.

Trash control is very important: "The drill will pass easily through stubble. Trash, on the other hand, can tend to hairpin under the coulter. The seed will sit on the bent straw and either rot as the straw rots or ping back up to the surface if the straw dries out," Jim explains. If the straw is to be chopped, the stubble must be left as long as possible – up to two feet long for rape – which, although it looks odd, helps keep pigeons off. Conversely, for minimal tillage, stubble must be kept as short as possible to help the discs go through.

It is then important to keep volunteers to a minimum. "Slugs can be a nightmare after rape, so you often need two shots of glyphosate to keep the volunteers down," states Jim. The bean volunteers are not so easy to chit, so in dry years a very light pass with the discs can help enormously.

The battle against slugs has to be kept up. Pellets are often spread on to the stubble before drilling to knock the population back. If a serious problem is expected, they are drilled in with the seed. "The seed is placed in narrow channels, so if a slug pops into the channel, it has a field day and romps straight up your drill line. The pellets soon put a stop to that. Also, if theyre incorporated in the channels its better for the environment," Jim points out.

Compaction is also of great concern. They have not yet invested in dual wheels or balloon tyres, so reduce the tyre pressure down as low as 9psi to maximise weight distribution. "Its a cheap alternative, although were probably knackering the tyres a lot quicker," remarks Nigel. They also keep the sub-soiler handy, the only essential piece of kit apart from the drill itself.

The drill they have been using is a Krause 5200, used by thousands of American farmers and imported here by Weaving Machinery. There is a full-length, gravity-fed grain hopper, with a smaller hopper in front for grass seed or slug pellets. "The drills the most important piece of kit, so its extremely important you make the right choice. This is a good, bog standard drill. I like it because it takes seconds to disconnect – you just unhitch and go," says Jim.

Weeds

The wheels are placed behind the drill, with one on either side of the 3m unit. This can make turning into some of their narrow gateways a problem. Another drill they have had on demonstration is a Kuhn SD400 – a pneumatic, hydraulically-folding drill with its wheels closer together and near the centre of the 4m unit. The on-farm price for the Krause is £15,800, while the Kuhn is about £34,000 before discount.

The weed burden is gradually decreasing. "You get a major flush of weeds and thats it. So we harrow to stimulate them, burn them off with glyphosate, and then drill. Try to cultivate as little as possible so as not to bring more weeds," advises Nigel. Rarely are IPU or other residuals needed nowadays. Wild oats and non-resistant blackgrass are a problem, so a spring application of Topik (clodinafop-propargyl) or Cheetah (fenoxaprop-P-ethyl) is often necessary.

There are limitations to the system: it may not be suited to every soil type, for example. "Our clay loams crack when they dry, which gives them a natural structure. Sand and silt may need turning perhaps," suggests Jim. Attention to detail is also vital.

No-till drilling, or direct drilling, has been in and out of popularity before. But Jim believes the timings right now. "Weve got better kit now, and Roundups cheaper. Its such a convenient system; when the conditions are right you just go out and bang in the seed, without having to worry about juggling the weather with the plough and power harrow. Its really gaining in popularity in the US too; the farmers who got no-till drilling to work are farming the land of those who didnt. Perhaps the same will happen here."