Pioneers set to reap min-till rewards
enthusiasts faced a steep
learning curve last autumn.
But lessons learned mean
they are well placed to reap
further benefits in future.
Edward Long reports
WITH care and patience, there is no reason why minimum tillage cannot be a low-cost, sustainable crop establishment system for UK arable farmers.
That is the key message from independent soils management specialist Steve Townsend to anyone just starting or planning to make the switch.
"Last autumn was a particularly difficult time to start a min-till regime, but some valuable lessons were learned," he says.
Herts grower Andrew Bott agrees. Together with foreman Tony Oakley, he struggled to make the system work last autumn.
"It was a partial success, but we could not use it for all winter cereals because it was impossible to prepare a min-till seed-bed after a flat crop of Charger. But we have not been put off, as there are some obvious benefits to be gained."
Minimum tillage has been used for oilseed rape on the farm for five years, saving time and money, and minimising moisture loss, says Mr Bott, who farms 485ha (1200 acres) of mainly medium loam at Benning-ton Lordship, near Stevenage.
After the farms dairy herd was sold in April last year and one worker made redundant, the workforce was reduced to two. They have to cope with 250ha of wheat, 125ha of winter barley, 70ha of winter rape, and 14ha of winter beans. First wheat is Claire, with a yield target of 11t/ha (4.4t/acre); the second is Malacca, with a target of 8t/ha (3.2t/acre).
It was at a conference at Shuttleworth College that Mr Bott made the decision to try the min-till approach for cereals.
"The concept seemed right and a neighbour who had been using it for many years told me there were no problems on his land," he says. "After a brainstorming session with Steve Townsend, I felt we had nothing to lose, so decided to have a go. We chose the worst possible autumn to start."
An important up-front policy decision, which would later pay dividends, was not to sell the six-furrow plough and not to invest heavily in new equipment.
The farm already had a 120hp tractor and needed a new tine drill to replace an old Accord. The aim was to select a machine capable of doing an effective job that the existing tractor could manage.
The choice was a 4m Horsch, an ex-demonstrator that cost £19,500. The only other investment was £16,750 for a John Deere Mulch Finisher.
In the past, seed-bed preparation work was often held up by ploughing, creating a severe bottleneck. The first job after ploughing was to go through with two passes of a Simba, or spring tine harrow, light harrowing ahead of the drill, then harrowing in and rolling down. Sometimes more passes were needed where the power harrow was used.
The aim with the min-till approach is to get at the stubbles with the JD Mulch Finisher as soon as the combine has finished. After two passes, the land is rolled and left to green up.
"We had hoped to min-till for all our cereals," says Mr Bott, "but we ran into the buffers when we started on our second wheat and encountered the thick mat of straw left behind after the combine had tried to pick up our laid Charger. It proved too much in the wet, and we were forced to revert to our old system for most of our second wheat and barley."
That is when Mr Bott was pleased he had not sold the old plough. It had no real cash value, so it had seemed logical to keep it in reserve, just in case.
The power harrow and Simba are also now surplus to requirements, but although there is some value attached to the big cultivator, the power harrow would fetch little, so will be retained. The sale of a redundant five-year-old 125hp tractor for £18,000 paid for the new drill.
The main lesson to come from last autumns experience was the value of a short stubble and tight chop where straw was not baled.
Wheat drilled into trashy conditions is slow to establish, so more vulnerable to weed competition and slugs. Although the new drill can cope, it is vital to avoid excessive straw on the surface at drilling.
Mr Bott believes ploughing helps establishment because it triggers mineralisation of nitrogen from soil reserves. But whether the crop needs it is unclear.
What is certain is that there has been a sharp rise in earthworm numbers. It is hoped that an increase in organic matter will allow nitrogen rates to be trimmed back and matched to soil residual N levels.
The thinner soils on the farm are on fields that were rarely mucked, because of the distance from the cattle yards. An increase in organic matter levels should help retain moisture in a dry time and boost yields.
More money will be spent on herbicide in the first two to three years, but that is considered a small price to pay for controlling grass and broad-leaved weeds, and it is hoped less will be spent in the longer term.
Previously, weed control relied solely on an IPU (isoproturon) + Stomp (pendimethalin) mixture. With ploughing, there was never time to slot in a stale seed-bed.
Now the aim is to create the ideal launch pad for weeds, and then hit them at the vulnerable two-leaf stage with glyphosate as soon as there is a strong flush.
The seed-bed is then rolled to encourage more weeds to chit, so a second flush can be chemically blitzed and ease pressure on the autumn post-emergence treatment.
"Min-tilled second wheat that looked seriously dreadful last winter improved dramatically in the spring, which has given us the confidence to carry on with the technique to notch up some worthwhile savings," says Mr Bott. *
Cash First wheat establishment costs reduced by 40% to £50/ha.
Time Establishment time reduced by 20-25 minutes/ha.
Loss of one man saves £20,000/year.
Rental value of vacated house £10,000/year.
First wheat Claire target 11t/ha.
Second wheat Malacca target 8t/ha.
Time and money savings made
"ADAS calculates that establishment costs for our first wheat have been reduced by 40% to £50/ha, a saving of £34/ha," says Mr Bott. "The biggest single saving came from ditching ploughing, which also contributed a large chunk to the 20-25 minutes/ha total time saved. Provided we do not experience another wet autumn like last year, we should be able to make savings like this over most of the farm, which will be well worth having."