Min-till may have profit edge
The arguments for
ploughing, minimum tillage
or direct drilling continue,
especially after last
autumns awful weather.
Suffolk-based farm manager
James Moldon is building a
clearer picture than most.
Andrew Swallow reports
PLANT counts show eco-tillage had the edge on plough or direct drill establishment last autumn on one Suffolk farm managers establishment trials.
But add in time savings and either the direct drill or min-till crop should produce the highest returns, says Stanaway Farms James Moldon.
"We have maintained the plant count so we should maintain the yield and maximise margin. The difference is in the time saving."
Typical total establishment time for the plough-based system is 192mins/ha. But if a combination power-harrow/drill has to be used instead of the cultivator drill, that rises to 241mins/ha.
In contrast, using minimum tillage can take a mere 103mins/ha and direct drilling 42mins/ha. Multiply that by labour and tractor running costs and the savings made can be substantial (see table). At first sight, with plant counts close to both plough and eco-tillage establishment, margins could be expected to be higher from direct-drilled strips included on first wheat land.
But with a less effective stale seed-bed to control blackgrass and other weeds, herbicide costs could escalate, he reasons.
By comparison eco-tilled strips may even achieve herbicide savings compared to ploughed land.
"We had such a good kill of blackgrass on the stale seed-bed that we have had to cancel a herbicide trial. It shows how important a stale seed-bed is when it comes to blackgrass control."
With minimum tillage and modern cultivator drills it is important not to do too many passes before the drill, says Mr Moldon.
"You should be aiming for a 75% seed-bed for these drills but most are getting near 95% which is causing problems weather proofing the seed-bed. Everyone is aiming for perfection like they do with ploughing but the approach for min-till is different."
Despite wet conditions, slugs have not been a severe problem on the test fields and a half-rate of mini-pellets immediately after drilling and again two weeks later did the job.
"With the eco-tillage and direct drilling the secret is to let it green up, but do not allow it to get too far advanced. If you do then the slugs really get going and you have got problems. And aphids will build up in the volunteers."
All the drills coped well with the trash of the reduced tillage systems. The Vaderstad again proved its versatility, while the John Deere – a machine designed as a direct drill – produced the lowest plant counts.
"Drills have to move some soil on this heavy land because just dragging a disc through does not work. In wet conditions it smears the soil and reduces the seedlings ability to survive. That is why we are getting lower plant counts, but that does not mean it will be the lowest yielding."
An advantage with the John Deere is a much lower horsepower requirement, he adds.
The Horsch drills wide coulter gives seed space to grow, but the rigid design means achieving an even seed depth on heavy uneven land could be difficult, reckons Mr Moldon, and while the KRM drills Suffolk coulters coped with the relatively low amounts of trash, workrate was much slower than the cultivator drills. "We are talking one-third of the speed."
Cambridge rolls followed every drill on every system. "Even the Simba and Vaderstad still need consolidation on our heavy land. It is not likely to cap and the cost is comparable to a pass with slug pellets. It is also much more environmentally acceptable," he says.
lHarvest results of Mr Moldons work will follow in FW this autumn. *
Little difference between plant counts suggests minimum tillage or direct drilling might lift profit over ploughing in James Moldons trials at Stanaway Farm this year – provided yield is maintained.
• Plough, eco-till and direct drill plant counts comparable.
• Superb blackgrass kill with eco-till.
• Time savings key provided yield maintained.
Cultivation timings (minutes/ha)
Operation Plough Min-till Direct drill
Five-furrow plough and press 82 – –
Disc/press – 49 –
6m Cambridge roll 12 12 –
3m power harrow 60 – –
Seed-bed spray – 4 4
3m cultivator drill 26 26 26
6m Cambridge roll 12 12 12
Total time 192 103 42
Estimated cost £/ha 58 31 13
Cost based on £8/hour labour, £10 tractor running costs inc depreciation.