Min-till needs proper planning
Every tillage technique has its potential pitfalls, and
minimum tillage is no exception. Andrew Swallow asked
independent cultivations specialist Steve Townsend to
answer some of the most common concerns
MANY growers going in for minimum tillage systems are increasing costs because they are not planning properly, says independent cultivations specialist Steve Townsend.
Financing, pest limitation – notably slugs – and grassweed control all have to be meticulously thought through for the system to succeed, he says.
But if that is done, the rewards are substantial. Cost of establishment, including capital and labour, is typically reduced by 40% compared with a plough plus power-harrow and drill system.
A key saving comes from reducing the number of tractors required on the farm. That money can be diverted into changing the drill and tillage equipment. For most growers, fewer tractors usually means less labour is needed.
"Machinery costs are typically over 50% of the cost of establishment, and if you include labour that rises to 80-90%. Operational costs – diesel, spares, repairs and overtime – are nothing by comparison."
Concerns that the large, heavy machinery will not be able to get on after heavy rain are overstated, he says.
"Provided there is enough consolidation after the cultivation minimum tillage can leave a very weather-proof surface."
Keeping a second set of machinery in case of rain is ruled out. "Can any grower afford to carry that extra cost just for that one in 10 or one in 20 wet autumn? Ploughing can be covered with a one-off contractor cost."
Consolidation is also important to reduce slug damage. Pelleting pre-drilling should not be necessary even after oilseed rape, he says.
Spraying off pre-drilling is a key component to successful grassweed control under the system.
"Grassweeds can be reduced under minimum tillage, but growers must be prepared to wait for a flush of grassweeds to come through before they drill. Occasionally, that will mean waiting until after normal drilling dates," he says.
While minimum tillage may be simple in terms of machinery used, management is much more demanding than for traditional plough and combination drill systems.
"With minimum tillage less time is spent actually working the field, but that extra time should be spent looking at it and working out what to do."
The size of farm is not a factor. "My smallest client grows 150 acres of crops. He uses second-hand equipment and there are ways for smaller farms to share machines. The same scale of savings can be made as on the bigger farms." *
• Heavyland: £50-£75/ha.
• Light-Medium land: £30-£45/ha.
• Management key input.
• Fixed costs main saving.
Savings on establishment costs through minimum tillage can be made on smaller farms too, says independent cultivations specialist Steve Townsend.
More care needed with some soil types
Minimum tillage techniques can be applied on all soil types, but, as with conventional cultivations, more care is needed with some than others, says Mr Townsend. "There are two you have to be careful with: Very sandy soils, and very silty soils. These are more tricky to handle, but they are under any cultivation system."
In general, the heavier the soil, the easier it is to look after with minimum tillage, he continues. Arguments that non-calcareous clays must be rotationally ploughed are not valid in his experience. "Mother nature does not plough anything. These soils may go hard, but they crack and by working at a shallow depth and mixing in organic matter we are getting over-compaction problems. If they do need some deeper cultivation a plough would be the last thing I would use. It would bury all the organic matter. It wants something like a subsoiler instead."