Opinion: Approaches to tillage – zealots on both sides

In the 1990s, as a keen young man who thought he knew it all, I persuaded my father to buy a direct drill.

Dad was sceptical. He had been there before, in the 1970s, when he had bought something cruder, but similar. In his time, after a few years of what he called “match and scratch”, he started struggling with compaction on our clay soils, so he returned back to the discs and power harrow.

See also: A year in the life of an NFU officeholder

But being over-full of my own puff, I wasn’t interested in the lessons he’d learnt. I’d decided to go large on floatation tyres in the belief I was going to glide over the land, leaving not so much as a footprint to evidence that I’d ever been there.

Furthermore, with the stubble burning ban now in place, I was going to better handle the straw residues. It was a clod-free, soil-improving, cost-saving system. What could possibly go wrong?

After a couple of years I did notice I was getting shaken about in the cab more, but I put it down to my increasing frailty in old age (after all, I was well into my 30s), and the annually-occurring “freak” weather.

This was when I started thinking like a believer rather than a farmer. I’d ignore any contrary evidence, determined to prove my faith was right.

To his merit, Dad sat back, probably thinking I’d soon learn from my mistakes. Unfortunately, it took rather long. I was increasingly stuck in an expensive rut, both metaphorically and practically.

Roll on another 20 years and I find myself at Lamma, kicking the tyres of new-fangled, zero-till drills.

(As an aside here, can I congratulate the organisers of Lamma for their show at the NEC. There was plenty of kit warmly welcomed by plenty of punters. It reminded me of the Smithfield days – but without the smell of muck and sawdust, or the evenings in the seedier bars of London’s West End.)

Anyway, back to those new, shiny, zero-till drills. I’ll admit they have taken the direct drill to another level, but I also note that this kit also seems to come with a brand of religious fervour not seen since the Puritans banned Christmas.

Increasingly, arable farmers are to be divided between the min-till brethren and those that still follow the old order of the plough.

I’ve even seen zealots on both sides taking righteous pot-shots at each other as to who is the more virtuous when it comes to saving the planet and/or producing food.

Even more perplexing, like something reminiscent of a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a sect called the “zero-tillers” have split from the min-till brethren on the grounds of blasphemy.

And now these break-away zero-tillers are in danger of splitting again, around the issue of the infallibility of the cross-slot.

Maybe it’s time to remember that any system, old or new, can triumph on certain soils in certain seasons, but there’s no such thing as a plan for all seasons. 

Maybe we all need to remember that in farming there is always something to learn, and no one church has all the answers. Or maybe I’m just becoming my Dad.

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