Five growers with considerable experience of direct drilling were quizzed by attendees at the first No-Till Alliance meeting in a question and answer session. Mike Abram reports

THE PANEL 

 

Jim Bullock, Worcestershire (320ha with Kuhn SD4000)

Simon Cowell, Essex (160ha with Aitchison)

Andrew Kerr, Essex (260ha + further 240ha contract drilling with Claydon)

Simon Chiles, Kent/Surrey/Sussex (contract drills up to 1000ha with John Deere 750A)

Christopher Renner, Rutland (320ha with John Dale drill)

What’s the best way to start direct drilling?

First, make sure your soil structure was right for direct drilling, Mr Chiles advised. “Start using shallower and shallower cultivations until conditions are right for direct drilling.”

Using a neighbour or contractor with direct drilling experience was also a good way to test the water, Mr Bullock and Mr Kerr suggested.

They would have experience with the drill, and how to set it up, Mr Bullock explained. “There is a learning curve with everything else when you direct drill, let alone starting with a new drill.”

Direct drilling took more management, Mr Kerr added. “So why not try it first using a contractor? Also research what you want to do before you start, and end up with a drill that is flexible, ie one that can min-till or direct drill.”

Can the same yield levels be reached with direct drilling?

Comparing yields between systems wasn’t easy, the panel agreed. “I’ve been direct drilling for 11 years and there are so many other factors, such as chemicals, varieties, etc, that could affect our yields,” Mr Bullock explained.

Mr Kerr said there was no reason why growers couldn’t achieve similar or better yields direct drilling, as long as they did it in the right way, while Mr Cowell thought his yields had become more consistent across the farm now.

Is a straw rake essential?

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Mr Renner agreed. “It is difficult to say. All I can say is that I am still in business.”

simon cowell 

Direct drilling had led to more consistent yields for host farmer Simon Cowell.

Not necessarily, Mr Bullock said. “The first machine in any direct driller’s locker is the combine. If it can chop straw evenly and spread it to the full width of the header, you can probably do without a straw rake. But some of the bigger combines are unable to throw straw that wide.”

Straw rakes also played a valuable role in slug control, he added. “They do help by destroying the slug’s habitat and eggs.”

Mr Kerr wasn’t currently using a rake, but was likely to move to one this season after seeing how it helped at Jeff Claydon’s farm. “I do feel there is something to be gained – and it is not expensive equipment.”

Neither Mr Chiles nor Mr Renner used a straw rake. “My clients’ tend to have smaller header combines,” Mr Chiles noted.

What is the best way to use a straw rake?

As soon as possible after combining, Mr Bullock said. “We do it at an angle of 45-90° to the way you’ve harvested the field.”

Once fields had been direct drilled for a few years they tended not to have tramlines, he added. “So you can go at a good speed. We’ve found 12mph does a good job.”

He also recommended a second pass a couple of weeks later. “We’ve also done it just in front of the drill, which helps against slugs.”

direct-drilled-crop 

Direct drilling opened up opportunities for spring crops that might not be possible on heavy land.

What crop rotation is best when direct drilling?

Direct drilling on heavy land opened up opportunities for growers to consider spring break crops that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to consider, Mr Bullock said.

For Mr Cowell the choice had extended to peas, which visitors to the open day had seen during a field walk. “Previously I was restricted to only oilseed rape.”

The more varied the crops you grow, the more successful you will be, Mr Chiles added.

Is there a problem using pesticides with following crop cultivation restrictions?

Atlantis was the one most growers were worried about, the panel said. But none of them had seen any problems after using it, although they recognised direct drilling oilseed rape after using it wasn’t on the label.

Part of the reason why not might be because of the increased biological activity in the soils, Mr Cowell suggested. “The bigger problem is actually getting the residuals to work for longer before they are broken down.”

It was a good question, Mr Renner admitted. “I hope this is something a No-Till Alliance would be able to investigate.”