Agronomists give their no-till crop establishment verdict

Low crop prices are forcing growers to reassess their costs, and ditching the plough for a no-till approach offers savings of up to 40% on establishment.

However, this push for no-till farming brings its own challenges, such as weed control, and not all agronomists and growers are convinced it is the solution.

Farmers Weekly asked four independent crop consultants to assess its merits for the 21st century UK grower and give their thoughts on whether “to till or not to till?”.

No-till is not for everyone and not for all rotations

Patrick Stephenson
AICC (Yorkshire)

No-till works on every continent in the world, in both wet or dry climates.

So something must be right, and having lectured in America, Australia, Europe and New Zealand, I can confirm those growers who are dedicated make it work very successfully.

These successful growers are almost zealot-like in their belief that this is the only way.

I think it is potentially a very successful system, but not for everyone and not for all rotations.

Set-up costs can be eye-wateringly expensive, however large acreages can be drilled quickly with little cost.

Although this high start-up cost tends to favour the big farm units, where machinery costs are divided over more acres, it is not always so.

How do you make it work? First, there is an underlying requirement to learn when to start drilling and when to stop.

Second, correct problems if they arise. In the wet seasons, such as 2012, some soils were severely damaged by trafficking and needed lifting or “resting”.

Third, keep crops growing on the land whenever possible. Finally, always be as light on the ground as possible, as compaction is the enemy of all crops.

No-till can be a very robust strategy to control grassweeds. Not disturbing the soil at depth and using tools such as the Kelly stubble rake can ensure non-selective herbicides are used very effectively on flushes of weeds.

My worries are potential issues with the repeated use of glyphosate.

Glyphosate has been the “antibiotic” of the arable industry, a “cure-all” discovery.

The storm clouds are now gathering as resistance to the chemical and a vociferous green lobby put the boot in.

The loss of, or application restrictions for, glyphosate will harm all cultivation systems, but may sink no-till.

Apparently, if we don’t move the soil, the blackgrass problem will disappear

Tod Hunnisett
AICC (Suffolk)

Somewhere in Essex, a long time ago during the last century…

“What’s this?” said J Campbell Main, world-beating senior lecturer at Writtle Agricultural College.“It’s blackgrass sir,” said ultra-keen HND agriculture student (in the days when students called their lecturers “Sir”).

“Hmm, it’s becoming a bit of a problem around here.”

“Oh, it’s OK sir, we’ve nailed it. We burn the stubbles, and then use our super-duper Bettimoore Unidisc direct drill. I know it cost the same price as a flat in Basingstoke, but it must be worth it.

“Apparently, if we don’t move the soil, the blackgrass problem will disappear. The drill cuts a slot, puts the seed in and then squashes it down. We then simply spray it off with 5 litres/ha Hytane [isoproturon] and the problem’s solved.

“We just need to nail the problems of slugs eating down the row and another weird weed called sterile brome. Also, I can’t understand why our oilseed rape grows to four inches and then stops growing.”

Fast forward to anywhere in England, any time in the 21st century (so far)…

“What’s this?” says Tod Hunnisett, guitar-beating senior member of The Thomas Lord Old Gits.

“No idea, mate,” says ultra-keen PhD student from Wotton-Under-Edge University.

“It’s called a plough. An innovation invented about 20,000 years ago. Apparently if you bury stuff, a lot of it dies.”

“Oh no, mate. We’ve nailed it. We spray four times with glyphosate and then use our super-duper Spiricroslot direct drill. I know it cost twice as much as a flat in Kensington, but it must be worth it. Apparently, if we don’t move the soil, the blackgrass problem will disappear.

“The drill cuts a slot, puts the seed in and micro-consolidates it. We then simply spray it off with nine pre- and post-emergence sprays and the problem is solved.

“We just need to nail the problems of slugs eating down the row and effing sterile brome. Also, I can’t understand why our cover crops grow to four inches and then stop growing.”

To be continued…(probably for another couple of centuries).

The first two years are tricky – especially if the weather is against you

Marion Self
Prime Agriculture (Sussex)

Weak commodity prices are prompting growers to evaluate their cost of production.

While we know that the biggest changes in cost of production come from reducing fixed costs, does this mean we all have to become “direct drillers”?

No. But it hints that the biggest effect on profits may come from evaluating time, steel and rubber.

No-till is not suitable for all situations – the right soil type is paramount. You need a self-structuring soil – calcareous clays are well suited, for example.

Importantly, before you engage, the soil must be well drained and in good condition and the weed burden should be low, especially grassweeds.

Rotation can help control grassweeds, but all the seed return will remain near the surface, so if herbicide resistance is an issue, the situation will get messy quickly. How many of you are still interested?

The first two years are tricky – especially if the weather is against you – while the soil begins to restructure and the “soil biota” improves. No-till systems often lead to more variability, but long-term data shows yields can be within 5% (+/-) of average annual yields.

My own experience suggests that after five years there are definite improvements in soil structure, and yields can keep pace with neighbouring farms.

True no-till systems require patience and commitment; to my mind no-till is not a lazy option, but requires intelligent management. Interference of the no-till system with deeper cultivations will disrupt the natural restructuring of soil.

Careful management of the no-till system also includes moling, ditching and drain maintenance. Residue management is important to reduce nutrient and pest issues and to aid even establishment.

Drill only when conditions are good – this can prompt early drilling and in turn increase grassweed pressure. On heavy land slugs in a wet autumn are a nemesis.

Spring drilling with no-till can be difficult/ugly, but good results are possible if you are patient enough to wait for the soil to dry and warm.

In theory, cover crops could ease spring drilling in a no-till system, but we are still learning how best to integrate their use.

It will require ingenuity and being aware of weed suppression when you are aiming for control.

So no-till is not for everyone, but in the right situation there are clear benefits from higher work rates, reduced labour, cultivation and fuel costs.

If you are tempted, why not encourage your neighbour and watch and learn from over the hedge?

Perhaps I’m sitting on the fence, but it’s Christmas, so why not join me for a sip of port and nibble of cheese while we contemplate what’s nuts and who’s crackers?

it can be several years before the soil starts to shake off the effects of long-term abuse

Stephen Harrison
AICC (Avon)

No-till – what does it mean?

Taken to its logical conclusion, the only true no-till technique is broadcasting on to stubble or bare soil with no follow-up cultivations.

This is self-evidently never going to be successful over a range of situations.

My definition of no-till is simply a crop establishment technique where the drill is the primary and only source of cultivation. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

None of that messing about with ploughs, cultivators and rollers all doing their best to destroy soil organisms in pursuit of the ideal home for the new crop.

The snag is that, in my experience, no-till is only fully successful where soil structure is ideal before you start.

Go dig a hole in the hedge bottom to see what your soil should look, feel and smell like. I guarantee you will be surprised.

Starting from a “broken” situation, it can be several years before the soil starts to shake off the effects of long-term abuse.

It’s a situation akin to take-all decline in wheat, except there are no seed treatments or sowing date delays to counteract the effects.

A host of sub-industries have grown up around no-till cultivation (oxymoron?).

Drills are proliferating, all with their own claims to fame. Trial and error is the only way to find one that suits you and with some drills costing £25,000 or more a metre, errors can be very costly.

Cover crops also seem to have become a must-have accessory. Trouble is that these things are dominating the debate and seem to be consuming more column inches than the real issue of soil health and biology.

Crop production seems to be in a constant hunt for the right answer to crop establishment. Trouble is there isn’t one. Any system done well will work.

I will end with a favourite quote of mine.

“There is nothing wrong with our soil, except our interference.” – Edward Faulkner, from The Ploughman’s Folly, 1943.

Whether you interfere with your soil via a no-till or progressive cultivation system, do so carefully. Treat your soil the way a good stockperson treats their animals.