Cover crops and no-till help beat profit crunch

Guy Eckley moved to using cover crops and direct drilling to improve efficiency on his Kent arable farm in case the price of wheat suddenly plummeted.

That was five years ago. So with wheat prices at rock bottom, he is glad he made his prescient move, which helped bring renewed life to his cold, wet Weald clays at Saynden Farm on the edge of Staplehurst, six miles south of Maidstone.

Wheat yields are now rising, while troublesome blackgrass levels are falling as cover crops – grazed off by sheep – boost the organic matter of his hungry soils.

“Cover crops and no-tillage go hand in hand. We are definitely going in the right direction because our soils are starting to improve,” he tells Farmers Weekly.

Six-year rotation at Saynden Farm, Staplehurst, Kent

  • Winter wheat
  • Oilseed rape (followed by summer cover crop)
  • Winter wheat (followed by winter cover crop)
  • Spring beans/barley
  • Winter wheat (followed by winter cover crop)
  • Spring beans/barley

See also: How wheat genetics can help counter low grain prices

His heavy clays are expensive to till, so abandoning cultivations has slashed costs, while earthworm numbers have risen sharply and soil structure improved.

The cost of establishing cover crops is offset by savings made in spring cultivations from his new drilling regime, so higher wheat yields and reduced herbicide use feed straight through to farm profits.

Winter wheat covers half his 600ha of arable land, so the yield benefits of up to 1t/ha and reduced blackgrass weedkiller use on some of his lighter land is welcome.

“Wheat is the biggest earner on the farm, so the yield improvement was a clear benefit,” he says.

Spring breaks

In the farm’s six-year rotation, winter wheats are broken up by oilseed rape and two spring breaks of either barley or beans, allowing two autumn cover crops to be grown.

The spring break crops perform better after these cover crops are grazed off by sheep, but it is in the following wheat that he sees the biggest benefit.

“Rather than the spring break crop, it is the wheat that sees the biggest yield advantage,” he says.

This means his milling wheat varieties, including Solstice, Skyfall, Crusoe and Trinity, average 9t/ha compared with 8-8.5t/ha under his previous minimum-tillage system.

A yield plateau in crop performance was being seen with his old minimum-cultivation system, so he was eager to look for another jump in efficiency to prepare for “when the wheels fall off and the wheat price falls”.

Mr Eckley’s move to his cover crop-direct drilling regime in 2011 was prompted by his need to change his combine and sprayer.

He decided to buy a 9m header combine, a 27m sprayer and widened his existing tined drill to 4.5m to fit with his controlled traffic system.

But he couldn’t find a 4.5m cultivator to fit the system, so he abandoned that plan and went down the no-till route with a 4.5m John Deere 750A low-soil-disturbance direct drill.

Direct drill

Guy-Eckley

Guy Eckley

The new drill arived on the farm in early 2012 and took over most of the drilling, while an older tined Horsch drill was used on lighter soils where blackgrass was not such a problem.

The John Deere machine drills directly into stubbles in the autumn and into cover crops in the spring, and its action of not disturbing the soil keeps blackgrass seeds on the soil surface and easier to kill.

Mr Eckely has been experimenting with cover crops over the past five years and looks for a good mix of different species at a price of below £30/ha.

He chooses spring oats as a cheap bulking material, vetch for its leguminous nitrogen-fixing ability, linseed for good rooting, buckwheat for quick early growth, small-seeded phacelia to give him lots of seeds/kilogramme and mustard for its quick growth while its haulm protects the soils when drilling.

His mix often depends on seed prices and availability. He he is wary of using grass seed in the mix that might give him a weed problem.

His 200ha of winter cover crops, grown ahead of spring breaks, are grazed off by a 180-sheep flock run by a young neighbouring farmer. The sheep come to the farm in November and are taken off in mid-February to allow time before spring drilling.

“Land that has been grazed by sheep gives better yields. When the cover crops are not grazed the yields are more variable and subsequent crops emerge slower,” he says.

Sheep grazing

Cover crops give the biomass to increase carbon in the soils, while the sheep grazing helps to increase the nitrogen that is readily available for the following crop.

The cost of establishing the cover crops in terms of seed and drilling – minus a small charge paid by the sheep farmer – is about £35-£40/ha without any fertiliser being used.

He justify this cost as he would be spending this much on ploughing and cultivations in the spring under his old cultivation system.

The better soil structure and drainage from the cover crops allow him to drill a few days earlier than before in the spring after they have been sprayed off using glyphosate.

Hand holding soil

“You can pick out the crops grown after cover crops as they are more even,” he says.

Organic matter in his soils is now 5-6% and increasing compared with 4-5% under the old minimum-cultivation system he abandoned five years ago.

No phosphate or potash is applied to crops as they receive plenty of poultry manure and compost, while reducing nitrogen levels could be a possibility in the future.

With the success of his autumn cover crops he is now experimenting with summer cover crops between harvesting oilseed rape and drilling winter wheat.

Blackgrass control

One clear advantage is with blackgrass control, as the direct drill leaves blackgrass seeds on the surface rather than mixing them into the top layer of soil.

This reduces the seeds’ rooting ability and hence pre-emergence herbicides work better against these poorly-rooted blackgrass plants.

“We are reducing our chemical spend on fields where blackgrass is not such as problem, as we are not encouraging as much blackgrass and making our chemicals more efficient,” he says.

He is also seeing less blackgrass in his cover crops, which could be due to competition, or maybe an allelopathic effect, whereby the cover crop releases chemicals that restrict the growth of blackgrass.

With herbicides working better, there is not such pressure to create stale seed-beds and drill late, so drilling usually takes place in late September, which is a safer bet than risking going later on his heavy soils.

Soils in Practice

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