How a min-till approach can improve soil health

A change to the cultivations policy has helped a Shropshire farming estate save both time and money, while also improving the condition of its soils.

The previous plough and power harrow system used across the business was abandoned seven years ago when Adrian Joynt became farm manager at Goulburn Farms (the current Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board’s (AHDB) Bridgnorth Monitor Farm), in favour of a lower-disturbance minimum-tillage regime.

Not moving so much soil means that the business has needed less labour at busy times of the year and hasn’t had to increase its horsepower requirement, despite adding 162ha of combinable crops to its 971ha total in that time.

See also: Expert advice on managing soils better

Cultivation system at a glance:

  • A McConnel Discaerator works to a depth of 20cm to incorporate chicken muck, followed fairly quickly by a 4m Horsch Pronto drill and roll
  • A stubble cultivator is used after harvest where a weed chit is needed

Benefits:

  • Less labour needed at busy times of the year
  • Reduced fuel use
  • Fewer man-hours
  • Improved soil health, being easier to cultivate

With the exception of some land that is rented out for potato production – where rotational ploughing still takes place – the current system uses a discaerator working to a depth of 20cm to incorporate chicken muck, followed fairly quickly by a 4m Horsch Pronto drill and roll.

“If we need a chit to take place, for brome control for example, we will use a stubble cultivator in between harvest and spreading chicken muck,” explains Mr Joynt.

Fewer passes

There have been two obvious benefits from the switch, he points out, in line with the fall in the number of passes made. Fuel consumption is down, bringing a cost benefit, and man-hours have reduced.

“In a nutshell, it has allowed us to farm a bigger area with less labour, while making sure that we are doing everything we can to improve our soils. Our establishment costs are now down to around £65/ha.”

Soil condition has also been helped by the use of chicken muck and sewage sludge, with the soils responding well to their incorporation. An obvious change has been on some heavier land, which has become much easier to cultivate over the seven-year period.

 McConnel Discaerator 4000

McConnel Discaerator 4000

Soil improvement

“We’re seeing the results of adding organic matter and the improved soil structure,” continues Mr Joynt.

“Our soils are in better shape across the board and can carry machinery more easily, which helps with the timeliness of our field operations.”

Having a beef enterprise on the estate also brings the opportunity to rotate the use of farmyard manure (FYM) around the farm. Tests have revealed that the available nutrients in terms of N, P and K where chicken muck and FYM have been used are three times higher than they are in chopped straw, bringing another cost benefit.

“We’re in our fourth year of doing variable rate P, K and lime applications, so are able to target nutrients to where they are required. We’re also planning to take a look at variable rate nitrogen and seed rates this year to see if they bring any efficiencies,” says Mr Joynt.

Goulburn Farms – farm facts

  •  Total of 971ha, of which 550ha is cropping
  • Cropping includes winter wheat, oilseed rape, spring barley, naked oats, hybrid rye and fodder beet
  • 121ha rented out for potato production

Cover crops

With 81ha of spring barley in the rotation, there is the potential to grow cover crops – something which Mr Joynt is looking at as part of his AHDB Bridgnorth Monitor Farm role.

“We have compared five different cover crop mixes in one field, which tends to be very wet, planting them in blocks and taking nitrogen cores in the spring.”

There was no difference in the following spring barley crop yield between the different cover crop blocks, but the amount of nitrogen supplied by them varied from 19-78kg/ha, giving a £33/ha difference between the highest and the lowest. The total nitrogen rate was 140kg/ha, irrespective of its source.

“We are repeating the work this year, using the same mixes as far as possible. Depending on the species mix used, it suggests that you can cover the cost of the seed and get a good return from spring barley and cover crops.”

Summer meeting

For the chance to visit Goulburn Farms on the Apley Estate, the summer meeting of the AHDB’s Bridgnorth Monitor Farm will take place on 5 June 2018, gathering at Norton Village Hall at 10am.