Direct drilling helps slash establishment costs

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Direct drilling can slash typical establishment costs by 75% compared with ploughing, and fuel bills from 20 to just 3/ha. No wonder growers are interested in switching.

Reducing crop establishment costs is a priority on most farms already, says TAG machinery consultant John Bailey, but while direct drilling is more of an option than many believe, it probably isn’t an answer across the entire farm, he warns.

That certainly doesn’t mean it should be dismissed, in fact just the opposite.

“On good heavy land with a 10t/ha yield potential it costs 100/ha to establish it with the plough.

At wheat prices of less than 60/t, growers need to get their establishment costs down to less than 70/ha as an average across the farm. Direct drilling a proportion at 25/ha brings that average down nicely.”

Lighter land farms by virtue of higher work rates may already be at the 70/ha (28/acre) mark, he says.

“But with lower yields it means they still need to reduce costs.”

Yield is paramount.

While it is difficult genuinely to save 30/ha (12/acre) in establishment costs, it is easy to blow the same simply by losing 0.5t/ha (0.2t/acre) in yield, he warns.

However, growers should not budget on losing yield when switching to direct drilling.

“If direct drilling is done in the right conditions and at the right time, there should be no yield loss,” he says.

“Apart from reducing costs, direct drilling under the right circumstances offers the opportunity to dovetail work better into the time windows available.

“Growers need to more seriously look for true direct drilling opportunities, where soil type and moisture are right, there’s not too much straw hanging about, tramlines are not too deep and weed status is reasonable,” says Mr Bailey.

“However, soil type is not a killer factor if direct drilling is just being used on an opportunity basis.

“Too few are prepared to use the drill in direct mode – be a little more adventurous within reason!

It’s a question of taking sensible risks – people get in to too much of a routine and then they don’t move forward as much as they should or can.

“In some areas like Dorset, a high proportion of straw is still baled giving greater opportunities for direct drilling.

After peas and beans there is very little straw left so these are ideal preceding crops.”

With diesel at 35p/litre, annual fuel costs for newer primary cultivation tractors are already substantially above depreciation costs, Mr Bailey points out, so every pass saved makes a significant contribution to reducing production costs.

“Also, in most circumstances, more problems are created by doing too many cultivations than too few, apart from the obvious cost implications.”

Considerable fuel savings can be made by switching to direct drillings, he says.

Typically ploughing uses around 57 litres/ha of fuel compared with just 9 litres/ha direct drilling.

“When you add the fuel used combining and all the other operations, such as sub-soiling and grain carting, annual fuel consumption for plough based systems is getting on for 100 litres/ha.”

Switching need not cost big sums for new machinery, TAG agronomist Andrew Wells notes.

“You don’t need a fancy new 25k- plus cultivator drill to get into direct drilling, it’s possible to buy second-hand Moore, Massey Ferguson and Bettinson disc drills cheaply that are still very capable of direct drilling.

“A client of mine direct drilled over 300 acres of winter oilseed rape last autumn with an MF disc drill that I think he paid less than 500 for.”

Challenge the experts and get their feedback in our Direct Talk forum …

  direct drilling – considerations 
  • Significant potential to cut establishment costs on part of acreage, reducing average establishment and production costs
  • Know your costs first – calculate fuel use for each job and soil type
  • Examine labour costs – risk of maintaining too high labour costs
  • Well-run machines cost 30% less, so look after kit
    Simplifying systems means less stress on men, machines and soil
  • Conditions must be right – it is rarely an answer across the whole farm
  • Consider contractor/sharing/machinery rings if you don’t have a suitable drill already

Table 1 – Typical Establishment Costs
   Establishment system

Cost (£/ha) 

Time (mins/ha)  Typical Litres of fuel used/ha  Cost/ha based on 35p/litre 
   Ploughing  £100 100  57  £ 20 
   Solo type + press (one pass)  £70  50  37 £ 13
   Carrier / Horsch (two passes)  £48  40  28 £ 10
   Scratch & drill  £40  30  14 £ 5
   Direct Drill  £25  20  9 £ 3
  Source: John Bailey, TAG

Table 2 – Whole- System Times and costs ranges
 Establishment system


Ploughing  £90-125 100-250 mins/ha 
Heavy discs  £70-90/ha  60-70 mins/ha 
Solo type  £65-70/ha  40-60 mins/ha 
Carrier / Horsch (three passes)  £50-70/ha  30-60 mins/ha 
Scratch & drill  £30-50/ha  30 mins/ha 
  Direct Drill  £25-50/ha  15-30mins/ha 
Source: John Bailey, TAG

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