Case study5

Direct Drill Turns Drill Developments Loss into Profit

In spite of keeping production costs under close scrutiny on the Claydon family’s 480ha all arable farm, the situation came to a head eight years ago when costs moved ahead of income and the accounts slipped into the red. The problem was caused by the long term increase in the farm’s input costs while the prices received for crops failed to keep pace. In 1979/80, says Mr Claydon, they were selling wheat for £100 per tonne, and 30 years later some of their 2009 wheat recently sold for just over £100 per tonne.

Meanwhile the price of inputs such as fertiliser and spray chemicals has risen, and an example is the price of diesel. Jeff Claydon recalls paying 8p for a litre of diesel in the past, but more recently the price peaked at 60p per litre, he says. Gaines Hall Farm, Wickhambrook, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, which is farmed in a family partnership by Jeff Claydon, his brother Frank and two other family members, is on medium to heavy Hanslope Series Grade 2 clay loam, which means oilseed rape, wheat and beans are the obvious crops and adding higher value roots to the rotation to boost the income is not an option.

“In a situation like that you have to look carefully at each of the inputs and what they contribute in order to decide where to make economies,” said Mr Claydon. “Yields monitored since the 1980s show that we can’t cut back on fertilisers or sprays, but we thought there would be some scope to reduce our crop establishment costs, which on our soil were quite high. We decided that direct drilling might be a possibility, but one of the problems might be obtaining consistently high yields with all our crop types every season.”

Existing direct drills were considered but rejected, and the Claydons began their own drill development programme. They designed a chisel tine to break the soil, followed by an A-shaped blade to move chopped straw and stubble aside, leaving 20cm wide clear bands into which the seed is direct drilled. In 2002 the whole of their rape crop was sown with the drill and, in an unusually dry season when most rape crops in their area were poor to mediocre, their direct drilled acreage performed “fabulously” with a 5 t/ha yield.

Results were also encouraging from a small trial acreage of second wheat direct drilled into a full cover of chopped straw. The yields from the 2002 direct drilled crops averaged exactly the same as those following a conventional sequence of ploughing and secondary cultivations, but the 2002 direct drilled crops saved £70/ha in establishment costs – a saving that more than doubled to £145/ha in 2009. Meanwhile Claydons had started producing a 6.0m version of the drill, known as the V Drill, and they have also introduced SR and Hybrid versions of the drill based on the same patented design.

The direct drill system, which is now used on the total Gaines Hall acreage, starts with a combine fitted with an efficient straw chopper. A light rake may be used after the combine if the straw needs levelling and the farm’s Househam self-propelled sprayer with a 3000 litre tank and a 24m boom controls weed growth. Crops are direct drilled using the V Drill, and last year they used a prototype version of the new Hybrid version pulled by a 360hp John Deere 8530 tractor, which is followed by a set of Cambridge rolls for consolidation. The drill works in four stages starting with the chisel type rigid tines that prepare drainage channels and break up compaction ready for the seeding tine.

The chisel tines are adjustable and are usually set at between 7 and 18cm to provide sufficient depth for healthy root development. They are followed by the A-shaped blades that move along the previously broken soil strip, clearing the surface trash while also moving the surface soil over the 18cm blade width. Seed is sown into the lightly tilled channels, followed by a press wheel to consolidate each line of seed or, in wet conditions, a light harrow. Due to improved moisture retention in the direct drilled soil, the new Hybrid version of the Claydon drill simply uses levelling boards instead of wheels.

Obvious benefits achieved by the switch from traditional crop establishment to the direct drill based system include big savings in time and costs. Costs are down by about two-thirds and amount to £30 to £40/ha for the direct drill system, and the work rate using a 6.0 drill on the 360hp tractor, is 1000 acres in 100 hours, saving about 80 per cent compared with their traditional system. This allows the family to generate extra income by doing nearly 3000 acres of contract drilling on other farms in the area.

Instead of doing the contract drilling the Claydons could comfortably manage to establish all of their own 480 ha using a 3.0m drill on a 150hp tractor. Yields from the two systems were similar when the Claydons began direct drilling, but since then yields from direct drilling have tended to increase with wheat averaging about 0.5 t/ha more than the levels achieved with the traditional crop establishment, plus a gain of about 1.5 t/ha for their rape. “The yield increase is a bonus, and I think it is the result of the improvement in our soil structure since we adopted direct drilling,” Mr Claydon explained. “There is less traffic on the soil during the autumn, and we only move a very small amount of soil compared with ploughing it all, which helps to build up the structure. We have seen a big increase in the earthworm population, and I think this is evidence of improvement in soil structure and drainage.

“The number of drills we can build each year is increasing as the business continues to expand, but one of the problems we may have to overcome is the fact that ours is not your average direct drill, but is totally different to anything else on the market. Direct drilling did not always work when it was first introduced in the late 1960s and there are many reasons for the problems that arose at that time. Many of the farmers who previously tried direct drilling and experienced a dip in yields during the first few years should take a look at our system because this is not something we experienced,” said MrClaydon.