Being prepared to take a step backwards has allowed Merseyside grower Olly Harrison to make the transition to no-till despite farming on the west coast.
Mr Harrison, who farms on heavy silty clay on the edge of Liverpool, says the key to making direct drilling work is to min-till until the soil structure is right, rather than diving straight in.
However, even though he now primarily direct drills, he is still prepared to cultivate to correct issues where necessary.
“A lot of people get a no-till drill on demo,” Mr Harrison says. “After a year they will say it didn’t yield well, and wasn’t good on the headlands, but it’s more long-term than that.”
As a result of his gradual transition, he is achieving an average wheat yield of 8t/ha while saving about £100/ha compared with a conventional system.
Mr Harrison started moving away from ploughing as a way to cut costs in the face of low wheat prices.
In 2004, when wheat was worth only £60-80/t, he focused on trying to get crops into the ground cheaply and growing them for as little as possible.
Having someone sat on a plough was seen as an unnecessary expense, so Mr Harrison switched to a one-pass cultivation system using a spading machine and seeding with a Kverneland Accord drill.
After he had used this system for a while yields began to drop, mainly because of compaction in certain areas, but they were also probably held back by growing continuous wheats, he admits.
About nine years ago he became interested in moving a step further and going to direct drilling, and bought a Moore Unidrill no-till drill.
On some of the 485ha cropping area the drill worked straight away, but on other land Mr Harrison found his yields were capped.
Double cropping target
One of Olly Harrison’s long-term targets is to try to grow two crops a year on some of his land despite being in the wetter west.
Having a 1MW biomass boiler installed on the farm allows him to combine his crops two weeks earlier, as grain drying has zero cost because he can utilise heat from the boiler.
So far he has tried planting a crop of spring barley after a winter crop, but thinks mammoth millet could be a good option in the future.
Two years ago, he tried drilling spring barley on 9 July after combining the previous winter crop on 7 July.
The spring barley barely yielded 1t/ha, and although it didn’t receive any inputs, it cost more to grow than it would have made as the wet summer that year hampered the yield.
However, millet, with its late drilling date of May, could be a better option as a second crop.
Mr Harrison has tried growing the niche crop three times with reasonable success, despite growing it further north than is recommended.
“We tried millet and it did fantastic, but then in October there was a storm and it knocked it over and shed all the seed on to the floor,” he says.
As well as requiring little in the way of pesticides and only a small amount of fertiliser, millet produces a large amount of straw which is perfect for feeding the biomass boiler.
A late-drilled millet also provides some soil cover, so at a price of £240/t it does not need to yield highly to be a worthwhile exercise for Mr Harrison.
As poor soil structure was likely to be the reason for yields not increasing past a certain point, he made the decision to take a step backwards and invested in a 3m Claydon strip-till drill to get the soil structure right first.
“The idea was to phase in the Moore drill, but the Claydon ended up being so successful that we got lazy and bought a big one,” he says, with the upgrade being to a 6m model.
“Yields were doing well and going up. I wanted a Dale-style opener to fit on it, and thought about doing it myself.”
But after five years the Claydon started to become a victim of its own success. The more friable the soil became over time, the more the Claydon disturbed the soil structure.
“Last year was such a wet winter and we really mauled some crops in,” he says.
The Claydon drill moved too much soil during the winter when it was wet, and this was then baked rock-hard during the hot dry summer.
To correct this, Mr Harrison bought a Sumo to do repair work on the headlands.
“I’m not religious about direct drilling,” Mr Harrison says. “I will correct things if its needed. You have to be determined to make it work, but you also need to be sensible.
This autumn, Mr Harrison again used his Sumo to do repair work where needed, varying from small areas to whole fields, and says it is now impossible to see where it was used. But he believes establishment without it would have been poorer.
In the future, he is likely to use a sub-soiler and then drill with a John Deere 750a, as this has better trash coping capabilities and should also sort out any areas of brome which have crept in.
Early OSR drilling
Drilling usually starts after the first week of September and is all completed by 1 November, as rainfall is too high to allow for late drilling.
As well as avoiding high rainfall, drilling oilseed rape particularly early is critical because of Mr Harrison’s proximity to Liverpool.
With the farm’s fields abutting the suburbs of the city, pigeons coming from the city centre pose a major threat to his crops.
“We are the first bit of farm around here. There’s safety in numbers but all of our neighbours have given up growing rapeseed.
“Unless we get rapeseed up and away fast, pigeons get on it and that’s it.
“It needs to be bushes going into the winter,” he says. “We have done trials and nothing grows OSR better than behind the Sumo.”
Cultivating land ahead of OSR is key as this helps warm up the soil and ensures the crop gets away quickly.
“I’m not religious enough about direct drilling not to do anything else,” he says.
Regional focus – the west
The grower: Olly Harrison farms 485ha at Water Lane Farm at Prescot, Merseyside, growing winter barley, oilseed rape, winter wheat, spring beans and linseed, as well as sunflowers for charity.
Regional problem: Direct drilling is often seen as the preserve of the east due to the increased rainfall experienced on the west side of the country, which forces growers to drill early.
Solution: Despite a yearly average rainfall of about 40in and heavy, silty soil, a long transition via min-till has allowed Olly Harrison to move to direct drilling. However, he is not afraid to take a step backwards when needed, ensuring his soils are not allowed to remain compacted after drilling into less-than-ideal conditions.