Strip tillage helps Norfolk farmer conserve moisture

Instead of conventional cultivations starting with the plough, Stephen Temple is using strip tillage for the first time to establish this year’s 62ha maize crop. The maize provides important winter feed for his mainly pedigree 100-cow Holstein and Brown Swiss dairy herd and 100 followers, and he expects the switch to strip-till will cut cost and bring environmental benefits.

 

Strip tillage uses special equipment that cultivates a narrow band for each crop row, leaving the rest of the soil undisturbed. The technique is popular in the USA, where it gives faster workrates and leaves stubble and roots from the previous crop undisturbed, thereby providing erosion protection.

His interest in strip tillage followed a visit to Morley Research Centre in Norfolk where the technique was being demonstrated on sugar beet and rape plots. The question was whether the technique would also suit his 230ha Copys Green Farm at Wighton near Fakenham.

His researches in 2010 showed that equipment for strip tillage is virtually unknown in the UK. In fact he found only one established user, who was working with kit imported from Switzerland.

Strip tillage is well established on the continent, it turned out, and several companies make the specialist cultivation equipment required. Last year he and his wife Catherine (who runs a cheese-making business that uses 25% of the farm’s milk production) visited several French farms using strip tillage mainly for maize and rape. The crops were impressive, and they were also impressed by the French-built Duro-France strip-till cultivator.

This mounted machine produces narrow tilled strips and comes in four to eight-row models. The Temples opted for a four-row model with a 3m working width, which they ordered with a set of soil-loosening tines, one for each row. They also specified optional wavy discs for cultivating the strips which are at 75cm centres for their maize crop. The price, direct from the manufacturer, was equivalent to £11,650.

Duro-France designed the cultivator to work with a seeder as a one-pass till-and-drill combination in uncultivated stubble. Dr Temple mounted his existing Kongskilde precision drill behind the cultivator with a hydraulic drive to the fan.

He started drilling maize in early April, sowing the seed into 6cm-wide cultivated strips. Recommended power for the cultivator/drill combination with soil-loosening tines is 120hp, but Dr Temple uses a 200hp Fendt Vario.

The tractor, chosen for its lift capacity, powers the strip-till rig at a fuel-sipping 1,500rpm engine speed.

Stewart Walden, who drives the Fendt, is enthusiastic about the time and fuel saved by adopting strip-till. Workrate on the sandy loam soil over chalk is about 10ha in a nine-hour day going straight into stubble, which means the complete one-pass operation takes about as long as one pass with a power harrow. Fuel consumption is between 12.5 and 15.0 litres/ha according to Mr Walden’s calculations.

“That is far less diesel than I would use just for ploughing, and on top of that there would be the cultivating and drilling, so we are saving a lot of fuel and it certainly saves a lot of time as well,” he said.

Apart from the financial benefits of reduced tractor operations, Dr Temple also expects other benefits from his move into strip tillage. Reducing the risk of wind erosion is likely to be important on some soils, including some of his own fields, and the over-wintered stubble will be an asset for wildlife and add to the environmental benefits.

His concern for environmental matters has won him a number of major awards including the Farmers Weekly Green Energy Farmer of the Year in 2010. He is also a qualified engineer and runs an electronics service specialising in humidity and temperature sensing plus fan controls for farm buildings,

There could also be another big benefit from the switch to strip tillage, he reckons. Inverting and then moving all of the soil in a traditional cultivation sequence causes moisture loss that could delay germination. With the strip tillage system only narrow bands of soil are moved, and exposure to drying lasts just a second or two before the drill’s press wheels seal the surface again.

“Average annual rainfall on this farm is about 600mm, but this year the spring has been exceptionally dry so far and we had only 15mm between late February and mid April,” he says. “It is a situation where conserving soil moisture is likely to be important, and I think this could an important factor for farmers in low rainfall areas.”

Dr Temple should soon be in a position to compare the moisture-saving benefits of strip till with other cultivation systems.

Before deciding to buy the Duro-France cultivator, he had already ploughed one of the fields earmarked for maize and then used the strip tillage system after conventional cultivations. An adjacent field with similar soil was drilled next, but with the cultivator/drill combi working in undisturbed stubble.

“My guess is that in a dry season like this, moisture loss from the cultivated field will slow down the germination, and we should see the maize from the strip tillage system making a better start,” he said. “It will be interesting to see what happens, but I shall be disappointed if my theory is not correct.”

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