4 March 2000

What kit will cut costs?

Four companies give their prescription for low tilling on two Hampshire arable farms. Tom Allen-Stevens reports.

IF YOURE going down the route of low till drilling, one of the easiest traps to fall into is spending more money than youve saved. With every machinery manufacturer under the sun competing hard for your dwindling stash of cash, it can be difficult to sift out the real savings from the salesmans banter.

This was the reasoning behind a recent conference on reducing input costs organised by Hampshire-based Crop Management Services. Four manufacturers were invited to recommend systems for two local farmers who are considering going down the low-till route.

"Like most people, were happy with the system weve got now, but its a matter of cutting costs," says Matthew Morton, who farms 850ha of various soils near Alresford. About 336ha was taken on this year, and he has come to the conclusion his present equipment will not cope. Some of the land he has taken on is very heavy and he believes less ploughing will give him better seedbeds, as well as reducing establishment costs.

Again cutting costs is the main driving force at Lower Norton Farm. Partner Tom Coleman is also concerned that much of his existing machinery is in need of replacement and wants to free up a bit of labour for other duties. He farms 380ha of mainly light, free-draining Andover soils at Lower Norton and three miles down the road at Hill Farm.

The four manufacturers toting for business are Moore, Väderstad, John Deere and Simba. Eric Fosbury, from Moore, recommends Mr Coleman swaps out his 4m drill for a 3m Moore Uni-drill, which at 27 years old is one of the longest-serving direct drills. Mr Fosbury believes this is more cost-effective than a 4m unit, but will mean rejigging the 20m tramlines, perhaps to a 21m system, to suit the new drill.

A 4m hydraulic folding Uni-drill would suit Mr Mortons higher acreage, he believes, but a more powerful tractor may have to be purchased or hired in to maximise its daily output. Mr Fosbury recommends both farmers cut the ploughing down to once every three to four years. Although the Uni-drill can handle direct-drilling, minimum tillage and ploughed systems, he points out ploughed land must be pressed firmly. With a potential forward speed for direct drills of over 12kmh, the main saving will be time, he believes: "A conventional drill doesnt have the weight on the coulters, so at this speed youd be feeding the birds."

Speadsheet

Väderstads approach is carefully costed. Tim Needham plugs all the figures he needs into a pre-prepared spreadsheet which can work out the savings of changing to a number of different systems. The best solution he has for Mr Coleman is a Väderstad Rapid 300s box drill and suggests he considers buying a set of light discs.

A 4m pneumatic drill would be more suited to Woodcote, Mr Needham believes, but would require a more powerful tractor. For both farms Mr Needham advises the old kit is retained – "experiment with direct-drilling, but dont commit yourself to just one system".

John Deeres Chris Meacock believes his firm has the edge in low tillage situations: "Weve worked for years with North American farmers who buy a drill to suit their coarse seedbeds. European growers have tended to spend a lot of time bashing up seedbeds to suit the drill."

He recommends Lower Norton Farm purchases a 750A 3m drill which will cope with conventional and minimum tillage systems, as well as direct drilling on some of his land. Woodcote will need a new 140hp tractor to pull a new 4m set of discs, he believes, but existing kit should cope with a new 6m 740A drill. He also advises both growers to keep their system flexible and make a gradual change towards minimal tillage.

Paul Collins from Simba, on the other hand, advocates an all-or-nothing approach: "Why create this nice tilth in the top few inches, only to bury it with the plough?" His recommendations are roughly the same for both farms: buying a 4.5m cultivator and a 4m drill. At Woodcote he suggests converting the cultivator to a 5.1m unit may be more appropriate, but a larger tractor would then have to be bought.

The view from many in the audience was that some of the manufacturers had underestimated the amount of tractor power needed to pull the kit up the steep Hampshire slopes, but what are the verdicts from the two growers? "There are pros and cons to each system – its a matter of balancing up cost against output. At the end of the day its going to boil down to what discounts youre going to get," says Mr Morton

Mr Coleman agrees. "Its not just the initial cost you have to consider, its how much itll cost you in the long term," he adds. At the moment he cannot see any clear way forward, but initially wants to retain some versatility: "Its quite a big step to take outright."

This is not the same for Mr Morton: "When we go to minimum tillage, we wont be doing any more ploughing."

Answers on cutting cultivation costs

Lower Norton Farm

Current set-upSize 380ha on two farmsSoil type Light Andover series with varying flint content Some clay/chalk loamCropping Winter cereals, beans and rape, spring barleyCurrent kit 1994 120hp tractor 1998 120hp tractor 4m Tume combination cultivator 4m Tive air drillEstablishment cost £68 per ha per year

RecommendationsMoore:New kit 3m UnidrillCost of drill £13,700Establishment cost not available

Väderstad:New kit Rapid 300s Pneumatic (Light Discs)Cost of drill £19,690Establishment cost £59.40 per ha per year

John Deere:New kit 4m 750A drill 3m tined/disc cultivator or discsCost of drill £34,420Establishment cost £58.86 per ha per year

Simba:New kit FG 4.5m stubble cultivator CO 4m drillCost of drill £27,000Establishment cost £53.70 per ha per year

Woodcote Manor Farm

Current set-upSize 514ha on 3 farms + 336ha taken on this yearSoil type Varies from light soil to clay capCropping Winter cereals, beans and rape, spring barley and linseedCurrent kit 3 tractors – 125hp, 120hp, 100hp 5 furrow Variowidth plough 3m p/harrow combination Accord drill 3.2m Quivogne discs and Moore pressEstablishment cost £80 per ha per year

RecommendationsMoore:New kit 4m hyd folding Unidrill (150hp Tractor)Cost of drill £25,000Establishment cost not available

Väderstad:New kit Rapid 400f 4m pneumatic 150hp TractorCost of drill £30,860Establishment cost £50.43 per ha per year

John Deere:New kit 6m 740A drill 4m tined/disc cultivator or discs 6910 140hp tractorCost of drill £32,000Establishment cost £66.00 per ha per year

Simba:New kit FG 4.5m stubble cultivator CO 4m drillCost of drill £27,000Establishment cost £53.20 per ha per year