Direct drilling case study: Will Scale


Farm name Great Nash Farm, Haverfordwest, Pembrokeshire

Farm size: 132ha

Area of each crop grown on farm:30ha winter barley, 32ha winter wheat, 20ha stubble turnips

Typical rotation: Winter wheat/winter barley/stubble turnips/spring wheat or rape/ww/potatoes (ploughed)

Soil type(s): Medium loam/red sandstone

Drill used: John Deere 750

Will Scale

When did you start direct drilling?

I started direct drilling seven years ago, using an old triple-disc drill. It proved direct drilling worked, but it was not accurate enough for seed placement, not well-built enough and I also wanted lower disturbance, so I found an old John Deere 750 drill.

It is the best-selling no-till drill in the world for a reason – seed placement is very accurate.

What prompted you to start direct drilling?

When I started farming, cereals were £60/t and the Welsh historic Single Farm Payment system meant young farmers had little access to new subsidy. I knew I needed to be cheaper, quicker with lower fixed costs.

Travelling as part of a Nuffield Scholarship in 2006 to study cover crops and no-till, I realised the UK had no more barriers to making a no-till system work than any other country. And once it was working the rewards were high-low cost, lower risk, better flexibility, better soils, and more time.

What have been the biggest benefits from direct drilling?

I see less soil erosion with direct drilled crops, meaning less phosphorus heading off down river and loss of irreplaceable organic matter. The soil takes water better, making it less drought-prone. It is also beneficial for wildlife.

Economically, it is cheaper to pull a 3m drill and 100hp tractor on the field at 12km/hr than a plough and tillage kit at 8km/hr. So you use less fuel, tractor power and hours.

Herbicide and fertiliser reductions are possible, but it takes a bit longer to get there – fundamentally less soil movement means less weeds. There is every reason to get as good a yield as in conventional, but for lower environmental impact. Investment in machinery should be lower, but you may need to spend well on a better drill which is doing the job of three or four tillage tools.

What have been the biggest issues you’ve faced since starting, and how have you dealt with them?

I’d be lying if I’d said it has all gone brilliantly all of the time. It is less forgiving than a tilled system. You need to get the slot opened for the seed, the seed pushed in at the right depth and then some soil above it to stop it drying out. A badly maintained drill or a drill not specifically designed for zero-till will struggle. Compaction must be dealt with, while looking out for brome.

Have you experienced any yield drop while direct drilling?

Yes, sometimes. The second year can be tricky and I think it is possibly a good idea to subsoil years two and three just to help things get a bit of air in the soil before the soil biology builds up enough to start doing it for you. Arguably, a bit of extra nitrogen or P at seeding may help this as well.

The yields are as good as any on the farm by about year four (and often as good in years two and three), but it depends on a lot of other factors as well – crop type, fertility, structure. Zero-till, along with permanent pasture and woodland is one of very few ways of building your soils – steel will never build soils.

What are the keys to making direct drilling work?

* A good drill. Don’t expect a min-tilled designed drill to do the job

* Believe in what you’re doing

* Rotation – diversity helps build soil life and structure

* Grow at least three crop types, and at least one spring crop every four years

* Make friends with someone who no-tills – the learning curve is steep

* If it goes wrong, find out why. Don’t just go back to tillage

Will Scale is one of the founder members of the No-Till Alliance, which has been formed to help growers share information to successfully adopt and use direct drilling on farm.

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