Min-till system overhaul slashes diesel and slug pellet use

There are many different establishment systems on farms across the UK, but Keith Challen had to look much further afield – to Eastern Europe – to find the drill and cultivator that met his requirements.

Selecting a new drill and cultivator often involves going round various machinery shows until you see one you like the look of, then going back home to work out how it will fit within your system.

Mr Challen, who manages 1,200ha of heavy clay soils in the Vale of Belvoir, turned the process on its head. He started with a blank piece of paper and listed the features he wanted.

See also: Video: Cultivating potato tramlines cuts water and soil losses

Only then did he start looking at the drill and cultivator systems on offer.

Strategic review

The change in establishment system was the result of a strategic review at the Belvoir Farming Company after the 2015/16 cropping season, as it became clear that the existing system was unsustainable.

“We had blackgrass, too many men and too much kit. It didn’t look like it would fit the post-Brexit world,” Mr Challen says.

Part of the problem was the establishment system, based on two 7.2m Simba Freeflow drills pulled by two Quadtracs. Cultivations consisted of one pass with the Simba Solo, followed by one to two passes of a Simba Cultipress.

“We were moving lots of soil and burning too much fuel,” Mr Challen tells Farmers Weekly.

In addition, operating on the clay soils the Freeflows were severely limited by the weather. For example, once it had rained in October he could no longer drill that autumn.

“We had one of the heaviest drills on the market at that time,” he recalls.

This setup did not fit with the need to drill wheat later to tackle the growing blackgrass problem.

“What we needed was a system that was much more flexible, allowing you to drill rapidly and when you wanted to.”

Farmet Phantom. © Tim Scrivener

Farmet Phantom. © Tim Scrivener

Drill choice

For the drill, Mr Challen wanted something that was wide (to fit the 12m controlled traffic farming system), reasonably light and with very low soil disturbance.

It also needed to place both seed and fertiliser and to have a big hopper so that frequent filling did not hinder progress.

Then he went to the market and found three disc drills that were wide, light and caused minimal soil disturbance. However, only one of these placed nutrition – and that was the Amazone Citan 1200, built for Eastern Europe.

“We approached Amazone and bought a 12m machine, largely based on a brochure and a Youtube video,” he says.

“We did see the coulters at the UK Amazone factory and they also had a 6m version, but with different coulters and hopper.”

Mr Challen saw enough to know it was the drill that he wanted – and it has proved itself in the season since its arrival in spring 2017.

One feature he particularly likes is the angled tines on the rear. Many drills have points that go down and move soil, which stimulates blackgrass germination.

“We didn’t want this so the tines have angled points that move the soil sideways, thus avoiding blackgrass germination. It means you can go late and cover seed without causing a blackgrass flush.”

Then Mr Challen wanted technology. “Our fields have been soil-mapped for conductivity and I wanted to vary seed rates accordingly.”

However, being built for the prairies of eastern Ukraine, the drill did not have this feature. Therefore, he approached Trimble and the company retrofitted a system that can reliably vary the rate.

The result is the Citan drill can drill much later. “I can do 200 acres in an afternoon. This is the same area that two Freeflows would struggle to do in a whole day.”

This greater work rate means that if it does not look like a good drilling day, he is happy to leave it, without the worry of getting on with the drilling.

“The right thing to do today may be nothing. Just wait for more suitable conditions,” he says.

Keith Challen. © Tim Scrivener

Keith Challen. © Tim Scrivener

Cultivator

He admits he has cultivated too deep in the past. “About seven years ago, we were running a min-till system, but working to a similar depth as a plough.”

He likes the idea of direct-drilling, but is not convinced it can work on his land. Not incorporating residue would lead to his clay soils going anaerobic, causing problems.

He believes regular light cultivations are the answer to incorporating residue, as well as helping control blackgrass and slugs.

The cultivator needed to be 12m wide, again to fit the controlled traffic farming system, and Mr Challen wanted to move soil.

However, he knew from experience that smearing can be an issue, so it would need to have narrow points. He also wanted some sort of consolidation at the rear.

Initially, he struggled to find anything that met his requirements.

“I went on the internet and spent weeks looking, and eventually saw one on Youtube in the Czech Republic and discovered there was a UK dealer.

The Farmet Phantom has more than 100 narrow-tipped points and high-strength breakout springs on top, with depth control managed by lots of depth wheels and a packer.

Mr Challen tried a 12m demonstrator Farmet Phantom on three occasions in 2016. “It performed well and I was able to manage the depth to exactly 50mm.”

He runs it straight after the combine. Some fields may receive up to three passes in the autumn, depending on blackgrass and moisture.

“We can now do 300 acres in a day with a Quadtrac. Before we had two Quadtracs with Simba Solos, each doing 100 acres in the same time.

One key benefit has been the fuel savings. “Diesel costs have fallen by £50,000 and we managed to sell one of the tractors, thereby reducing fixed costs.”

Straw management

The final part of his establishment system overhaul was the Canadian-made Redekop straw chopper on the Case Axial-Flow combine.

“We are seeing more crop residue with high-yielding crops and the greening effect of fungicides.”

However, the previous chopper was proving to be not up to the job of evenly spreading residue across 12m.

If you look at a piece of straw, it turns black from the two cut ends as it breaks down, he says.

But if it is lacerated lengthways, the bacteria and fungi can enter the piece along its length and break it down much more quickly.

Trials with the new chopper showed that straw broke down more rapidly, with residue gone in nine weeks, compared with 16 weeks using the previous chopper.

“We are now also avoiding the bands of straw we used to see which acted as the ideal slug habitat.”

The benefits for the following crop are fewer slugs and less nitrogen lock-up. “Slug pellet use has halved since making the changes,” he says.

Cultivation system at a glance

There are three key elements to Keith Challen’s establishment system:

  1. Drill: 12m Amazone Citan drill with Trimble variable seed system
  2. Cultivator: 12m Farmet Phantom
  3. Straw chopper: Redekop combine-fitted straw chopper

Benefits

  • Halved slug pellet use
  • Diesel costs slashed by £50,000
  • More timely cultivations
  • Increased work rates
  • Lower labour requirements