CUTTING BACK CULTIVATIONS
Reducing crop establishment costs – but not at the expense
of lower yields – is the aim of the ecotillage system.
Mike Williams reports on the success of one Notts farmer
SWITCHING from ploughing and conventional tillage to the Ecotillage system of reduced cultivations is cutting Peter Whites crop establishment costs by £37/ha (£15/acre). He has also gained more even germination and crop growth, as well as taking on more acres to make use of the time he has saved.
Mr White had been interested in reducing his autumn cultivation load for several years, but the decision to make the switch followed a demonstration with a Simba Freeflow Drill. The demonstration on 49ha (120 acres) of the 506ha (1250 acres) Leyfields Farm at Kneesall, Newark, Notts, proved that the drill would easily cope with the chopped straw from the previous crop on the Keuper Marl series silty clay loam soil.
The ability to work with chopped straw was a key factor in the choice of cultivation systems. The drill previously used on the farm would not deal with large amounts of trash, which is why the plough was used for everything except oilseed rape where the cultivation sequence started with discs.
Leyfields Farm, which Mr White runs for the K Mawer & Co family partnership, is all arable apart from about 25ha (60 acres) of permanent pasture. There is a small acreage of sugar beet, with winter wheat and other combinable crops making up the rest of the acreage.
The decision to make a break from a plough based tillage system was aimed at saving time and cost. Mr White used a six-furrow plough with a press on a 170hp tractor, and this was followed by discs and a press, one or two passes with a power harrow and then the drill and a roll. This gave a crop establishment cost of £113.62/ha (£46/acre) including major contributions from the plough and power harrow.
Seen in 1995
The drill was demonstrated in 1995, but it was another 18 months before Mr White decided to buy a Freeflow and switch to reduced cultivations. He used the time to check the yield from the crop drilled during the demonstration, and also to talk to other farmers who were already using various minimum cultivation drills.
"The ability to drill through chopped straw is really the key to changing the system, and I was very impressed by the drill demonstration," says Mr White. "But giving up traditional cultivations is a big step, and I dont like to rush into a major policy change. I was in contact with a number of other farmers who have made a similar move, and they were all very positive about the results. Their experience helped to convince me I was making the right move."
The switch from traditional cultivations to reduced cultivations at Leyfields Farm started last year, and the 1998 harvest is the first result of Ecotillage.
Ecotillage was developed jointly by Simba International and Monsanto and was introduced two years ago. It is based on the Freeflow drill, with the plough reduced from an annual routine to about 25% of the crop acreage each year. Instead of ploughing, shallow cultivations are carried out with discs to move the soil and encourage weed seeds to chit, and weed growth is controlled by glyphosate sprayed before drilling.
Peter White starts his cultivations with a set of Parmiter discs which are used in the stubble. This is followed on about 50% of the acreage by soil loosening with a Simba Flatliner subsoiler at about 25-38cm (10-15in) depth. A double-press and flat roll combination follows, with glyphosate sprayed for weed control before drilling with the Freeflow.
The crop establishment cost, based on last years work rates, was £76.57/ha (£31/acre), a £37/ha (£15/acre) saving compared with the previous plough system, and this has been accompanied by significant savings in time.
Typical drilling rates for the traditional system with the 12ha (30-acre) average field size were 20ha (50 acres) per day, limited not by the work rate of the 6m drill but by the slow speed of the power harrows preparing the seedbed. With the 4m Freeflow drill on a 155hp tractor, and no power harrows, output has increased by 50% to 30ha (75 acres).
Other benefits Mr White has noticed during his first year with Ecotillage include quicker and more even seed germination. This is because the reduced cultivations help to retain soil moisture to give the crop a better start, and this also reduces exposure to slug damage.
"Giving the crop a better start has helped to give more even growth throughout the season," he says. "We have quite a lot of variation in soil in some of our fields, but this years crops have looked much more even than usual, and this is something other people have commented on.
"Obviously we will not know the yields until the end of the harvest, but things are looking good with harvest just starting, and I am very pleased with what we have so far. I think the basics are right and we can concentrate on fine tuning."
One of the changes he has in mind is reducing the seed rate. Because of the improved germination the seed rates used previously appear to be too over generous and plant populations are too high.
Mr White is also planning to take on more contract drilling this autumn. Because of the time saved by his reduced cultivations he was able to take on an extra 200ha (500 acres) of drilling last year, including an additional 80ha (200 acres) of land he rented on a short lease, and this autumn he hopes to drill a total of 800ha (2000 acres). *
Above: Peter White (left) with Adam Swan, who does the drilling at Leyfield Farm. Right: Almost ready to cut. Peter White checks some of his barley grown with reduced cultivations.
Peter White has saved time and money by switching from plough based cultivations. "The ability to drill through chopped straw is the key."