Case study2

Direct sown cereals suits Lincs farm

Although initially sceptical of the idea of no-till crop establishment, Tom Ireland and his father, Peter, soon realised the technique could be highly successful following some ‘repair work’ carried out by a contractor’s direct drill.

The father-and-son team grow 400ha of arable crops from a base at Fenway House, Helpringham, near Sleaford, Lincs, together with assistance from full-time tractor driver, John Bird. “At first, I wasn’t particularly convinced by the idea of direct drilling the farm as a whole,” admits Tom Ireland.

“We were running a system based around ploughing and combination drilling, and were fairly happy with the yields we were getting –– but not with our establishment costs. “Then five years ago, we had some oilseed rape on an area of heavy land that had patches suffering badly from slugs. Rather than give up on it and re-drill the whole area, we asked a contractor who owned a Claydon V-drill to come in and patch them up –– saving us having to re-cultivate the grazed areas. “I was still sceptical even after the re-drilled bits started to grow and wondered whether we’d made the right decision. The crop didn’t look very pretty at all through the winter –– particularly because of the drill’s wider rows.” But what changed Tom Ireland’s opinion was the crop’s yield performance that year.

No noticable difference

“By the spring, it was getting harder to see the difference between the conventionally-sown and direct drilled crops, and at harvest, there was no significant yield difference between the two.” Tom Ireland was sufficiently impressed by the results to go ahead and investigate the technique further –– arranging to visit the Claydon’s family farm in Suffolk to learn more about how the technique might work longer term. “While ploughing and combination drilling is cost-effective on our lighter ground, I was keen to find a way of reducing our establishment costs on the stronger land, given that the direct drilling ‘trial’ had worked so well.

” What he particularly likes about the Claydon design is the way in which the leading tine creates a soil structure that provides free-movement for both water and roots. “At the same time, I wanted to try and find a system that prevented us from losing too much moisture from our lighter soils –– hence the appeal of direct drilling.”

100% commitment

Impressed by both the yields and costings from the Claydons’ farm, Tom Ireland felt he’d seen enough to warrant investing in his own drill –– thereby committing to establishing most of his combinable cropping using the no-till approach. And although the power harrow/drill combination has been retained as a back-up, the bulk of the farm’scombinable cropping has been direct drilled for the past four seasons. “Rather than sell our six-furrow Dowdeswell plough and our Lely Polymat combination drill –– the former being 25 years old –– we chose to retain them, mainly because we receive a quantity of pig muck from a neighbouring farm each autumn, which is applied to fields in rotation, so we obviously need the plough to incorporate this.

But the majority of our winter cropping is still direct drilled.” The farm’s cropping is spread across 275ha on the home unit, with a further 125ha of contract-farmed ground –– the soil type mainly being a medium loam, together with some fen silt hills and heavy hollows. “The first season with our 4.8m V-drill saw us move straight into direct drilling our cereals and oilseed rape. Although we use a Flatlift subsoiler where necessary –– on around 16ha last autumn –– most of our land doesn’t need deep loosening too regularly. “In dry seasons, strong land tends to self-structure anyway, and we make a point of trying to minimise compaction by keeping trailers to the tramlines within fields –– using flotation tyres as well.”

‘Steep learning curve’

He admits to being “on a steep learning curve” for the first 2-3 years with regard to sowing dates and seed rates. “But the crops established well, and the yield have remained on a par with those we’d been achieving previously under the plough and combination drill system –– around 10-11t/ha for winter wheat. He notes that the soil’s load-bearing capacity became noticeably better by the second season of direct drilling allowing him to get onto the land sooner for spraying and spreading, as well as carrying the combine and trailers better at harvest.

“The only issue we had with the V-drill was with chopped straw pushing up in front of the leading tines in wet conditions –– especially where the straw hadn’t been chopped and spread very well.” But this issue was overcome by running a double-press over the chopped straw in front of the drill. “We were also keen to increase our output by way of a wider drill but Claydon couldn’t offer us one at the time.” However, a 6m folding version of the drill (i.e. the Hybrid) was introduced this spring fulfilling two of Tom Ireland’s key requirements –– more working capacityand greater clearance between the tines. “The addition of ski boards to replace the press wheels has also reduced the corrugated seedbed effect we were seeing previously.”

He reckons the direct drilling system has now proved itself by reducing the number of establishment passes and cutting costs as a result –– with no effect on the yield. “But we wanted to have more working capacity, with an antidote to the blockage problem in the wet –– and the Hybrid looked as if it would provide both of those things.”

The fully-mounted Hybrid also uses new leading loosening tines which mean shearbolt or hydraulic auto-reset protection systems can be incorporated. Coulters are A-hoe types which plant the seed in 180mm, 150mm or 75mm bands set 300mm apart –– aiding both light penetration and machinery travel, according to Claydon. The Irelands’ new drill was actually delivered on-farm in time for drilling last season’s winter wheat and beans, and has also been used for sowing spring peas. It was the second prototype built by Claydon.

“We direct drilled all but 20ha of our wheat last autumn,” says Tom Ireland. “The reason for that was a problem we’d had in the previous rape crop where we’d omitted to use Kerb (propyzamide) and there was a high blackgrass population in the crop, so we decidedto plough instead.” Average wheat yields this year were 8.6t/ha for Solstice, 11t/ha for Gallant and 10t/ha for Cordiale –– the farm’s only second wheat –– with Oakley still to cut at the time of going to press. Excel winter rape averaged 4.3t/ha this harvest, with Catana coming in at 5t/ha.

“Not having to plough, disc and press twice before drilling means we’ve been able to cut around £120/ha from our operating costs,” calculates Tom Ireland. He costs-in the Claydon at £42/ha. The Irelands have off-set the cost of their drill by offering a contract drilling service to neighbouring farms. Last season, that was carried out for £46-52/ha –– depending on the area involved and whether the customer was supplying the diesel. “From just 60ha or so in 2005 when we first started contract direct drilling, we were asked to do almost ten times that area in the wet autumn of 2008.” However, the demand did drop back a fair bit last season, he admits.

Some poorer crops

“Some farmers see direct drilling as a ‘fire brigade’ job, just as we did when we first tried it, I suppose. Unfortunately, some of the conditions we were forced to drill in during 2008 led to some poorer crops, which may have been blamed on the system, rather than conditions.” Operated behind a Challenger MT765, the drill has proved relatively cheap to
run, reckons Tom Ireland. “Compared with some min-till drills, there are far fewer bearings and wearing parts, which is obviously an advantage. And in most situations, we’re only having to make one pass.

“Occasionally, we use the Flatlift on compacted areas, and we sometimes run a set of cut ring rolls over our heaviest ground a day or two after drilling.” He reckons the new drill produces a more level finish, thanks to its ‘ski-board’ press. “I wasn’t a fan of the corrugation effect created by the tyre packers used on the previous drill as they tended to ride on the ridges where we followed up with a set of rolls –– leaving a less firm finish where the seed was actually placed.”

Crop establishment

Drilling begins in mid-August, with conventional OSR sown at 80 seeds/m2 and hybrids at 40-50 seeds/m2 –– depending on the conditions. By the first week of September, they move on to wheat, starting with Solstice on the light land, followed by Gallant after the middle of the month.

Wheat on the fen land, where blackgrass tends to be more of a problem, generally isn’t drilled until mid-to-late September. Similarly, second wheat tends to be sown from the second week of October onwards. “With early wheat, we start at 225-250 seeds/m2 rising to 300-350 seeds/m2 later on. The only variety we tend to make any extra allowance for is Solstice, which tends to tiller less well.” He adds that sowing was a bit later last autumn because of the dry weather. Tom Ireland reckons to be able to drill as much as 32ha/day of wheat with the Hybrid –– slashing his establishment time.

He reckons that with larger fields and less travelling, this figure would be even higher. “Sowing a similar area under the old system would’ve involved two days of ploughing, two days of discing and pressing, then one and a half days of combination drilling.” Direct drilled wheat looks much less tidy than crops drilled conventionally, right through until about March, buthe’s come to realise this isn’t a major issue. “Their growth rate is very much the same.” Indeed, there are some significant agronomic advantages in the way the crop is planted, he believes. “It’s noticeably easier to keep the lower leaves free from disease in the direct drilled crops. I reckon there are two main reasons for this –– firstly, the 300mm band spacing improves the air flow around the plants, allowing better spray penetration.”

Better tillering

The wider rows also facilitate better tillering making it hard to see the difference between direct drilled and conventional crops late in the season, he adds. “And secondly, because the only part of the soil profile that’s disturbed is where the seed is placed, blackgrass and other weed seeds aren’t stimulated to grow.”

Trash is no more of an issue than it would be for a min-till drill user, continues Tom Ireland. He’s used a set of discs ahead of the drill occasionally on some stubbles, but more to aid traction than to incorporate straw –– for example, last autumn when the Challenger’s rubber tracks struggled to cut into the soil. “We bought a Claydon Straw Rake last autumn to aid trash dispersal and to help with slug control. But slugs can be a problem after oilseed rape whatever the crop establishment system used, and we suffered under our old system on some of the heavier land where we produced cobbly seedbeds.”

A rake pass helps to destroy the eggs and damage the slugs’ habitat, he believes. “After rape and first wheat, we try to rake as soon after harvest as possible to speed up the rate of straw breakdown –– reducing slug egg numbers and maximising the chit of weeds and volunteers in the top inch of soil.” Following rape, there’s generally enough time for a second pass to create
another weed flush before spraying-off, he says. “But we back this up with a pre-sowing application of pellets after rape –– applying another half-rate after drilling.”

Tom Ireland is currently considering the potential offered by the Hybrid’s Artemis electronic metering system to allow variable rate sowing –– putting more seed on in the heavy hollows patches and less on the silt hill areas. “Our fields are mostly square, so we tend to drill the same way each year and try to put tramlines back in the same place.

“The soil surfaces have improved a great deal –– they’re definitely more friable now and tend to ‘absorb’ the previous harvest’s trash very well. There’s not much more trash with direct drilling than under a min-till situation, and the worms seem to pull it in quite happily. “My only concern with the greater amount of surface trash is mycotoxin development resulting from decaying residues from the previous crop. But I reckon this won’t be an issue in most seasons since much of it depends on the weather. “It’ll take time for direct drilling to make a big difference to the farm as a whole but adopting this type of system has undoubtedly saved us both time and money.

Despite the wheats’ appearance early in the season, we’ve seen no fall-off in yields. “The main difference is in the time, fuel and labour savings we’re making now. Even where we’re putting in a pre-drilling soil-loosening or rake pass, or having to press afterwards, we’re still not spending the sort of time that we did previously. Nor are we using the same amount of fuel.”