Move to no-tillage halves crop establishment costs

Mike Daniells is cutting his establishment costs almost in half for his combinable crops with a move towards a no-tillage system and by keeping his cultivators back in the farm shed.

This autumn all his cereals and oilseed rape went in with strip-till drills as he looks to improve the health of his soils before moving towards a true no-till system in five to six years.

All his crops emerged well this autumn at an estimated establishment cost of £82/ha.

This compares with the £145/ha of his old system, which comprised a mix of ploughing and minimum cultivations.

Early signs from the switch are very positive, with minimum problems seen from straw trash blocking the drill, good earthworm activity and clear signs of a good surface tilth being created.

“Our long-term aim is to go all strip-till and then move to a less aggressive type of direct drilling. We are very pleased with crop establishment this autumn, with the straw trash disappearing quickly,” he tells Farmers Weekly.

See also: Future-proof your business with no-till farming

His strip-till drills were tried out this autumn across a range of his Lincolnshire arable soils, from typical light Wold land to heavy clay marshland towards the coast.

Establishment costs

His new establishment costs includes one pass of a 12m straw rake and then followed by the new 9m strip-till drill. He emphasised that he sees the strip-till drill as a stage to get his soil in better heart before the introduction of true no-till direct drilling.

Costs include fuel, labour, wearing parts and depreciation, and compares with his old system of ploughing some of his land, then tine and disc cultivators and a disc drill, and a minimum cultivations system on other areas of the farm.

The move necessitated a big investment on the 2,000ha Lincolnshire estate, based at Rossville Farm, Swaby, six miles south-east of Louth, where 1,850ha is in arable cropping and the rest is grassland grazed by 60 South Devon and Limousin suckler cows.

The first purchase was a 4m Sumo DTS strip-till drill, which sowed 15% of the autumn cropping in 2014.
Mr Daniells was so pleased with the result that a 9m unit was bought, and together the two drilled more than 1,000ha of cereals and oilseed rape this autumn.

The farm’s owner, Steve Wharton, backed the sizeable investment in the two drills and also the purchase of a 12m Sumo rake due to the potential of vastly-reduced establishment costs for the future.

The strip-till drills incorporate a disc to cut through the straw trash. This is followed by an adjustable tine to sweep away the trash and cultivate a strip for the seed coulter, which is followed by covering discs and consolidating wheels.

The farm team is still learning about the strip-till approach, and assistant farm manager Simon King says the straw rake is crucial to spread the straw after the combine and also help with slug control.

“The rake needs to follow the combine into the field to give a good spread of straw and help it break down quickly,” he says.

All winter wheat and oilseed rape straw was chopped by the combine, while some of the barley straw was chopped and some baled. The 9m strip-till drill with wide rows is pulled by one of the farm’s two 485hp Case Quadtracs, and the ground is quickly rolled afterwards.

Autumn drilling makes up two-thirds of cropping in the six-year spring barley-winter barley-oilseed rape-winter wheat-spring beans/spring barley/vining peas-winter wheat rotation.

One application of glyphosate herbicide is made just ahead of autumn drilling to control blackgrass and other weeds. And only one glyphosate spray is used just ahead of spring drilling rather than using numerous stale seed-beds.

For this season, spring drilling will use a mix of strip-till drills and more conventional ploughing and cultivation establishment methods.

Some 80% of land destined for vining peas and 30% for spring beans will be ploughed and the rest strip-till drilled as more experience of the technique is gained.

As the new drills can operate on cultivated land as well as directly into stubble, they will be used for all the drilling next spring.

9m strip-till drill

The 9m strip-till drill is pulled by a 485hp Case Quadtrac.

The aim is to dovetail the new cost-cutting establishment technique with the farm’s strategy to get on top of blackgrass, which has steadily got worse in recent years.

Blackgrass control

The grassweed problem had escalated by 2012 with nearly continuous autumn cropping and as herbicides became less effective.

There was also a need to widen the rapeseed rotation to stay on top of increasing problems with slugs through the autumn and winter.

Barley crop

Winter barley emerged well this autumn after being established with the strip-till drilling system.

As a result, spring barley and beans were added to vining peas to give two seasons of spring breaks in the revised six-year rotation.

“Spring drilling does reduce blackgrass levels, but it is not a panacea and we still need a full herbicide programme,” says Mr Daniells.

Blackgrass control in winter wheat still includes a pre-emergence spray, Avadex (tri-allate) granules, a post-emergence treatment and then Atlantis (iodosulfuron + mesosulfuron) in the spring, and Mr Daniells has not seen any change to herbicide costs with the move towards no-till.

Mr King explains the farm’s strategy is to keep blackgrass seed in the top layer of the soil rather than cultivating or ploughing to bury the problem only for blackgrass to reappear in future years.

“The aim is to leave the seed close to the soil surface, so we can use glyphosate or shallow cultivations to control the blackgrass in the autumn and spring,” he says.

Cropping on the farm includes Skyfall and Crusoe milling winter wheats with Diego and Tempo feed winter wheats, while winter barleys include the malting variety Venture and the new six-row hybrid feed variety Bazooka.

The spring barley area is dominated by the malting variety Propino, while a range of oilseed rape varieties are grown such as hybrids, conventionals and high-oleic, low-linolenic (Holl) types.