Brutal soils brought into check

Compton Manor Estate at King’s Somborne in Hants is the sort of place you’d dream about –– 970ha of rolling Hants countryside, there’s 530ha of arable, set in generous fields among well managed mature woodland. Passing through is one of the best stretches of the River Test for trout fishing, and this, along with the woodland, has earned it a reputation as one of the top sporting estates in the country –– truly a jewel set in a scepter’d isle.

But just try and work its soils. “Evil” is how drill operator Peter Jarvis describes them. Although it neighbours easy-going chalk downland, Compton itself sits on brutal, heavy clay, laced with unforgiving flints. When Andrew Day took over as estate manager three years ago, it was at the start of a radical change in the way these soils were kept in check.

Deep cultivations culture

“Previously, there’d been a culture of deep cultivations,” explains Andrew Day. “Ploughs and heavy tines made multiple passes to beat the soils into shape. The estate had more tractors than it needed and no earthworms at all, while the wearing metal and fuel bills were spiralling out of control and proportion. This may have been sustainable in a good year, but it wasn’t one to rely on as costs rose.” The quest had been underway to find a new cultivation system.

“A number of demo machines had been tried and frequently went back broken. We’ve a number of small fields with tight corners, which made the previous drill –– a trailed Horsch Sprinter –– difficult to manoeuvre. A drill with too many press wheels isn’t suitable because the flints just tear them to shreds.”

In the end, the decision was taken to buy a 4m Claydon Hybrid drill, which arrived shortly after Andrew Day started on the estate in March 2011. “The Claydon sows the crop in bands, so you only move as much soil as you need. The first crop we tried was spring barley, and there’s always an issue over ensuring the crop has enough moisture. But it established well –– because you’re not moving so much soil, it doesn’t dry out and the plants find their own moisture. The crop of Propino yielded 7t/ha, which for us is pretty good.”

That autumn was the drill’s first full season. “It did a remarkable job, and all the crops looked fantastic.

One thing we noticed straight off was the time saving previously drilling had typically carried oninto Nov or even Dec, but the Claydon buys us time on our difficult ground.

”The wet conditions in June and July 2012 scuppered hopes of high yields, however, and proved a challenge for getting the crop established that autumn. “We struggled, but then everyone did. We did wonder whether we should bring in the plough, but we stood by the system and got everything drilled up. Like many others in the UK, some of our 2012 winter oilseed rape and wheat failed, and I think if that had been the first year we’d operated the new system, we would’ve questioned whether we’d made the right move, but by then we’d had exposure to the benefits.”

The Claydon system is a relatively simple one. Leading tines, set at 300mm centres, create a deep-drainage tract down to 150mm depth. These lift just enough soil for the following A-share tines, which place the seed in a 150mm-wide band. A choice of batter boards, harrows or press wheels (or an optional combination of two of these) cover the seeds at the back.

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