Direct drill switch success for No-Till meeting hosts

The No-Till Alliance’s second direct drilling grower day is being held on two neighbouring farms on the Surrey/Kent border. Mike Abram paid Simon Chiles and Tony Wilkins a visit

Tony Wilkins (pictured on the left) used to describe the heavy Weald clay soil on his 60ha farm as “minute ground”.

“It was either too wet or set like concrete,” he explains. “We called it minute ground because there was such a short window when you had good conditions to drill.”

That was when he used to plough. But it has all changed since the farm has been direct drilled by his near neighbour on the Kent/Surrey/Sussex border, Simon Chiles (pictured on the right).

“It used to sometimes take a week to establish a field when we used to plough and power harrow to get a seed-bed,” Mr Wilkins recalls. “Any timeliness went out of the window.”

Now Stockenden Farm, near Oxted could be drilled in a day, Mr Chiles says.

No-till Alliance open day

A second direct drilling day for growers is being held jointly at Messrs Chiles and Wilkins’ farms at Edenbridge on the Kent/Sussex/ Surrey border on Wednesday 5 May.

As with the successful event at Simon Cowell’s Essex farm last April, the morning session will consist of presentations on different aspects of no-till farming, including life working with no-till in Brazil and soil management.

Drill manufacturers will also be available at the event to talk through their designs, although there are no working demonstrations.

In the afternoon there will be a chance to discuss direct drilling agronomy with the host farmers and other growers with experience.

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The improvement is due to a much better soil structure. “The farm hasn’t had any deep tillage for six to eight years. You can tell the way the soil has improved over the years. It now has a fluffy top to it, and the earthworm increases are incredible.”

Heavy rain used to prevent field operations for, perhaps, up to two weeks in the days of ploughing, Mr Chiles remembers. “A couple of weeks ago, we had 40mm of rain, and you could walk on the fields in two days.”

Mr Chiles started direct drilling 10 years ago after deciding it was taking too long to establish crops using the plough. “I wanted to speed up the operation.”

After two years of research he came to the conclusion that the way to go was the complete opposite to ploughing – direct drilling. “I looked for a drill that could do everything, and decided for my situation the John Deere 750A was best.”

Initially he had trouble closing the slot over the seed using the drill. Adding a Guttler wheel to the drill has solved that issue, and another of compacting the side of the slot.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re using a tine or disc drill you compact the side of the slot to a certain extent, which stops the root growing outwards from the beginning,” Mr Chiles explains. “The Guttler wheel punches the soil over the slot to close it, and breaks that compaction. It has transformed the job, which is probably why other drill manufacturers are adding similar devices to their machines.”

After 10 years direct drilling, Mr Chiles has learned some other good lessons for success. “Ploughing is a fairly idiot-proof system, with this you need to think about what you’re doing.”

One of the first rules for success is getting the soil structure right before starting to direct drill, he says. “When you come out of ploughing, you will need to sub-soil in the second or third year, and then don’t deep cultivate at all after that.

“It is also important to level the land, using a set of shallow discs. If you’re not going to be cultivating for 10 years, you don’t want to be bouncing around on uneven ground every year.”

Once in a direct drill system it is also important to minimise any soil disturbance, he says. “When you’re ploughing you use the plough as part of your weed control to bury the seeds. In a direct drill system you need to use a different method.”

That means weed control in the previous crop becomes very important, and not disturbing the ground to create a new flush of weeds in the next crop, he explains.

“Only cultivate when you need to out of crop,” he advises. “For example, if you can’t take out volunteers of the previous crop out of the following crop chemically, such as wheat out of oats, then shallow disc prior to drilling to chit the wheat and spray it off.”

Weed control and other agronomic requirements are helped through generally better timeliness, Mr Wilkins points out. “My timings are so much better because I can get on the ground so much earlier. It means I can apply fertiliser and spray at the right time, which is really important.”

Rotation is another crucial tool in the armoury a direct driller should make full use of, Mr Wilkins believes. “If you see a problem building up, then you need to be flexible on what you grow.”

For example, on a field where annual meadow grass and some brome have started to infiltrate he is growing linseed this spring. “The field has been shallow cultivated in the autumn to get the weeds to chit for us to clean it up.”

Spring cropping is much less of a problem to establish on the farm since the switch, he says. “The ground wasn’t really spring cropping land before, but direct drilling has enabled us to spring crop. We can afford to let the land dry out a bit more, knowing we won’t lose all the moisture, and so drill in optimum conditions.”

The overall result has been a lift in yields of around 1.25t/ha in both wheat and Gerald oats, plus much reduced costs, and a much improved cost of production. “With current prices, I probably wouldn’t have been growing arable crops on the farm without making the change,” Mr Wilkins says.

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