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A history of soil care


Hands in soil

The Claydon system of establishing crops has been delivering fantastic results since its invention in 2002.  More and more customers, throughout many regions of the world, have experienced the benefits of the system since its launch in 2003.

The initial key driver in developing the Claydon strip tillage concept was reducing costs, but Claydon quickly realised just how beneficial the system was to the soil and dramatic improvements were seen on the home farm in Suffolk.  The soil became healthier, fuel consumption dropped as the soil became easier to work and worm numbers thrived due to the increased crop residue on the surface. The Claydon leading tine technology cultivates only in the rooting and seeding zone: this meant that worm burrows weren't destroyed, allowing their numbers to increase, which in turn increased the soil biota allowing crop roots to proliferate throughout the soil profile.

We are now appreciating the enormous benefits that healthy soil is bringing to crop production.  Although we don’t fully understand all that is happening in the soil, we are convinced that the benefits of the Claydon concept will allow farmers to feed the world in a sustainable way, meeting future requirements of government legislation and helping to safeguard our soil and our environment.

How healthy is Claydon farm soil?


Unhealthy soils “slake”, or run together, when wetted very quickly as they are lacking in the natural glues that help bind the soil together. Slaking blocks the natural pores and worm burrows in the soil which can lead to ponding and waterlogging.  This can also develop into erosion, resulting in topsoil loss. Conversely, in very dry conditions, this can lead to wind erosion, which is equally as damaging.

UK crop production specialists Hutchinsons carried out a slake test on the soil at the Claydon farm and compared it to soil on a neighbouring farm that had been under conventional cultivation.  Was there any difference in soil stability?  Watch the video to find out.

The importance of soil stucture


Dr Elizabeth Stockdale, Head of Farming Systems Research at NIAB, is one of a group whose practical approach to soil is helping us understand what farmers should be considering to change their approach to crop establishment:

"A well-structured topsoil has small, rounded, water-stable aggregates and a range of pore shapes and sizes that form a continuous network, allowing good aeration, root proliferation and better drainage.  Plant roots and some soil organisms (such as earthworms) change the structure of soil by moving through the soil, moving soil particles around and extracting water.

A well-structured subsoil has vertically orientated, often continuous pores and fissures which are formed by physical shrink-swell processes and then maintained by root and earthworm action.  Between these pores, the soil forms column-like structures; in clay subsoils these may be single prismatic aggregates. These columns give the overall soil profile strength to bear the weight of machinery etc. Such soils are resilient and can better resist damage by compaction.

Good soil structure increases the window of opportunity to seed at the right time. It also minimises tillage costs in terms of tractor hours, number of passes to prepare a seedbed and size of tractor and implements required.

Cultivations need to be carried out with care to avoid weakening any natural column strength.  Recent analysis of data collected from a number of research studies has shown that reductions in tillage intensity have benefits for soil biology with marked increases in the larger invertebrate species, especially deep burrowing (anecic) earthworms, where inversion tillage is removed from the rotation. Tillage has much fewer direct effects on smaller soil organisms – however, tillage can have significant indirect effects on the soil habitat which will then affect the soil organisms."

Ploughing, min-till and zero-till


Traditional cultivations, or ploughing either heavy or medium to lighter soils, is an expensive exercise, both financially and in terms of damage to soil structure.  Ploughing creates cost increases, extra cultivation passes, wheelings and moisture loss. Other issues caused by ploughing include releasing CO2 (depleting soil organic matter), mineralising N and destroying soil micro-organisms. Mixing sub-soil into the topsoil can have detrimental effects on crop performance.

With min-till, instead of inverting the soil with the plough, several shallower cultivations are carried out.  These also damage the soil’s natural structure and biology, leading to compaction and waterlogging.  Min till mixes weed seeds throughout the soil profile.  Distributing the seeds allows them to germinate over a long period and when the soil is cultivated again over many seasons. The weed seed bank is not diminished.  Min-till also has a tendency to dehydrate the soil.

Zero-till or no-till refers to methods of sowing without pre-tillage, where pressurised or weighted discs are used direct into stubble to cut a seeding slit in the soil.  Heavier soils can prove a problem for zero-till: at times of high rainfall, discs are more likely to smear seeding slots and compact the soil, leading to poor root penetration. Water sits in these slots and rots the seed.  As no tilth is created, germination problems may occur due to poor soil to seed contact.  Hairpinning can also be an issue, when decomposing crop residues which are jammed into the seeding slots decompose and become toxic to young seedlings.

This also stops the radical root finding soil to harvest moisture and nutrients causing the seed to die. Straw which is forced into seeding slits may “pop up” when the drill passes, taking with it the seed.  Hairpinning is more of a problem when trash hasn’t been effectively managed. During extended dry weather periods, when ground bakes solid, discs may also find it more difficult to penetrate the ground and may need added weights. Instances of extreme weather are increasing and zero-till disc drills will not always be able to establish crops if conditions are not ideal.  For this reason, it is common to have other machinery to establish crops when zero-till is not possible.

How Opti-Till® benefits soil and crop


The Claydon Drill’s leading tine technology is at the heart of the Opti-Till® system.  The leading tine moves soil only where required – in the rooting and seeding zone.  The bands in between the seeded rows are left undisturbed.   The front tine loosens and aerates the soil, creating a friable tilth which is a perfect environment for seedlings to germinate and develop strong, deep roots which tap into the moisture in the undisturbed banks of soil. 

The leading tine also breaks up any shallow compaction, reinstating the water and air balance in the soil, providing good drainage so water can get away from the rooting zone. This eliminates ponding through the later autumn and winter period.

Why leave undisturbed banks of soil?  Moisture is retained in the unmoved soil for the crop to access.  Earthworm populations thrive, their burrows are left intact and old rooting pathways remain.  The natural structure of the soil is not destroyed by cultivations so soil density remains consistent through the profile. Natural capillaries remain unbroken allowing water infiltration and unimpeded rooting at all times, minimising stress throughout the crop's life cycle.   Soil biology flourishes.  Claydon soils have an increased capacity to support traffic in the field without risk of compaction. This all contributes to make a healthy soil for a healthy crop. 

Due to the Hybrid’s design, fields become level over time as cultivations are eliminated (full cultivation practices generally cause unevenness in the fields). The A-Share seeding coulter design not only provides consistent seeding depth it also does a fantastic job of levelling the fields.  Headlands usually suffer some yield loss in conventional cultivation. This is eliminated with the Claydon Hybrid drill; the leading tine action and the undisturbed banks of soil ensure that crop performance is the same on the edge of the field as it is in the centre of the field.

The Claydon Hybrid drill’s versatility allows it to be used in conventional and min-till establishment after soil consolidation.  It was designed as a direct drill however and it is in this scenario where maximum benefit is realised.  The crop residue that is left on top locks in moisture and helps protect the crop and the soil from weather extremes.  The layer of mulch helps prevent soil blow and water run-off.  It is gradually broken down by worms in the soil, increasing the level of organic matter and soil fertility.  Worms also aid drainage as their worm burrows act as channels which let water soak away. 

Crops established with the Claydon Hybrid seeder within the Opti-Till® system are better at coping with weather extremes, whether high rainfall events or prolonged dry periods are experienced.  This is due to the improvement in soil structure.  In recent times, this has been very much in evidence where various regions of the world have experienced extreme drought or rain, and crops established with the Claydon Hybrid seeder have performed remarkably well; although Claydon crops may have suffered a yield downturn, it has not been to the same extent as conventionally established crops, where yields have dramatically reduced. 

As the Claydon Drill eliminates the need for unnecessary cultivations, it also reduces cost and time in establishing crops. 

So in answer to the question: “But will it work on my soil?”  the answer is going to be Yes!

Getting off to the best start


When you switch over to the Claydon Opti-Till® system, you may wish to consider your soil condition at depth to get the best possible start.

Cultivation pans are usually formed by continuous cultivation at the same depth over a period of time.  They will adversely affect your yield and your soil, no matter which method of cultivation you use.  If you have pans then soil experts may suggest considering cover crops with strong roots or subsoiling – although the correct choice of subsoiler is vital.  Dick Godwin, visiting Professor at Harper Adams University in the UK, gives advice on subsoiling here:  Choosing the right subsoiler

Drainage is also an important factor in good soil structure which is often overlooked. The benefits of getting the fundamentals right cannot be underestimated, as Rob Burtonshaw explains here: The benefits of good drainage

In heavy clay soils mole ploughing can be carried out to establish semi-permanent drains.  This must be carried out when soil conditions are suitable.

To identify compaction in soil, a pit should be dug deep enough to see below the depth of recent primary cultivations, being mindful of the drain layout. This should be done in late autumn or spring when there is soil humidity and fresh rooting.  You should be able to see the soil profile and the rooting of plants from both current and previous plants. These are good indicators and will show if there are any problems.  If you are unsure how to identify problems in your soil, contact a soil specialist or ask Claydon for advice.