Direct drilling can drive down fuel costs

Ben and Philip Williams switched to direct drilling after realising that a conventional plough-based system was not working well on their soils and they are already seeing the benefits, cutting fuel use to 8.4litres/ha to establish a crop.

The brothers, who run a mixed 358ha farm in The Brecon Beacons National Park, south Wales, have spent the last four years developing a no-till system that fits their grass and arable rotation. The rotation consists of a five-year mixed grass/clover ley followed by five years of arable cropping, including wheat, oilseed rape, barley, beans and forage roots.

Ben explains that they decided to switch to no-till after experiencing problems ploughing small, sloping fields. “We had soil washing down steep slopes in heavy rain and the plough was bringing up many large stones,” he says.

By ploughing three or four years in succession, they were reducing their earthworm population and damaging the soil structure. “The soil was becoming a ‘porridgy’ mess. It was much more difficult to get onto and it wouldn’t drain as well,” Ben recalls.

Headlands were also suffering from compaction impairing crop performance. “We farm small fields with an average size of 3.8ha, which means headlands account for a significant proportion of our total area.”

They first learned about direct drilling in the farming press. When they looked into it, they discovered there were potential benefits for the soil in the long term.

At the heart of their system is a second-hand Kuhn SD4000 no-till drill with its triple-disc system, which they bought four years ago for £10,500 to experiment on their sandy loam soils over old red sandstone.

Ben says they opted for this machine over a tine-based drill because they work better on stony ground. “A tine would lift stones to the surface and a disc drill has minimal soil disturbance,” he explains.

“It cuts a narrow slot and pops the seed into it. Some direct-drilling people prefer a tine drill, which is effectively cultivating the soil.” However, Ben believes in the “purist approach” of “absolute minimal disturbance of the soil”.

In the first year, they successfully established a field of swedes and found the method worked well on their land. In subsequent seasons, they successfully established spring barley after roots.

After seeing the benefits of a no-till system first-hand, they are using the approach for almost the whole area this season.

Earthworm numbers will hopefully increase as a result of adopting the no-till approach along with improved soil structure. “The earthworms create a lot of soil structure benefit,” Ben says. “They create holes which are good for aeration of the soil and the drainage.”

Minimal soil disturbance should allow fungi and bacteria in the soil to increase, resulting in a build up of organic matter. Fungi will breakdown livestock manures into nutrients more readily available to the plants and actually assist the plants’ roots in accessing these nutrients. Also as these soil organisms provide food for earthworms they are essential to build up a good earthworm population.

The brothers say the move to a no-till approach is saving costs and allowing the work to be done more quickly and easily.

This autumn they have drilled 96ha. “It has definitely been much quicker and we have been able to get things done on time without doing much weekend work” says Philip.

“We tend to harvest later here because of a shorter growing season than more favoured arable areas, normally cutting in the last week of August. But if the weather is not right, we are into September before we actually harvest it.”

The later finish to harvest delays drilling of subsequent crops. But by eliminating the time it takes to plough, they can drill crops in September, instead of October when the weather is usually wetter.

No-till also saves money on plough points and machinery wear and tear, he adds.

It is also easier to combine direct-drilled crops as the ground tends to be firmer and more even, he says.

Crop yields have not suffered when adopting the no-till approach. “Harvest 2011 yields for direct-drilled wheat and oilseed rape crops were similar to crops conventionally drilled after ploughing. This year was a better season than average with wheat at 10t/ha and rape at 5t/ha.

However, the brothers point out that there are some disadvantages to no-till. “Slugs are problem number one,” says Philip.

“When we were ploughing, we were reducing the slug population, but now we’re using more slug pellets, but are still applying them within the metaldehyde stewardship guidelines.”

Philip says the short harvest to drilling interval as a result of a shorter growing season can impede volunteer cereal control especially if it is too windy to spray, leaving fewer suitable days for spraying off weeds.

And where a dense population of weeds has been sprayed off, there is a risk of the glyphosate being transferred onto the emerging seedlings and prevent them germinating or even kill them as they come through. “We have reduced this risk by grazing with sheep from five days after using glyphosate.”

This season, wheat crops were direct-drilled following grass, which required more management than if they were following arable crops. The ground was more firm and much drill adjusting was done to get the seed into the ground.

Looking to the future, the brothers are hopeful in building on the benefits seen with their no-till approach. “We have built up a good soil structure and soil biology during the five years of the grass and clover leys,” says Ben.

“Hopefully we are going to retain that right through the arable rotation.”

Philip adds: “It’s early days yet for us and no doubt we will encounter some further problems but hopefully we will find a way to manage them in our farming circumstances.”

No-till tips

• Apply slug pellets as a matter of routine.

• Drill slightly earlier than normal.

• Increase seed rates by 10% (although in future this may fall back to normal)

• Keep the crows/pigeons off

Greenway Farm

• A 358ha mixed farm near Brecon, in the Brecon Beacons National Park

• Annual rainfall of 1000mm

• Cropping 108ha of combinable crops on sandy loam

• Rotation consists of cereals, oilseed rape and beans within grass and clover leys

• Also run 400 beef cattle, 13,000 turkeys and 1,300 ewes

Autumn farm walks

The No-Till Alliance is holding two autumn farm walks this month for growers interested in no-till farming.

Both events will discuss different techniques, strategy and practice for direct drilling.

Ben and Philip Williams will be hosting the first event, sponsored by Farming Connect, from 1pm to 4pm on Thursday, 10 November at Greenway, in Llanhamlach, Brecon, Powys.

The second day is being hosted by Devon grower James Lee from 1pm to 4pm on Friday, 25 November at Uppincote Farm, in Shobrooke. Gloucestershire independent consultant Steve Townsend will be speaking at the second event.

Prior registration for both events is essential at

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