‘Soils First’ Farm Visits 2016
Midlands & West Event, 21 June 2016

An established no-till system

Clive Bailye of is Managing Partner of TWB Farms, an all- combinable crops enterprise near Lichfield, Staffordshire.  The farm ran a min-till system for 18 years before moving to no-till in 2010, a decision driven by rising fuel prices, concern about the impact of heavy tractors on the farm’s soils, and the need to conserve soil moisture.

Crop diversity is at the heart of Clive’s system.  “Mono-cropping has the same effect on soil biology as a human eating nothing but junk food.”  Growing a wide range of crops and cover crops is the best way to provide soil microbes with a healthy and balanced diet.

The transition to no-till has impacted all aspects of the farming system, including soil health, the choice of crops, nutrition, pest control, the equipment required, and the timing of operations.

Better soil health.  The farm is on light, drought-prone soils with low cation exchange capacity.  Since switching to no-till, the farm has seen dramatic improvements in soil health, with significantly higher infiltration rates, more crumb-like structure, and greater earthworm populations.  The soil is easier to work and can be travelled for more of the year.

Greater crop diversity.  Crop diversity is at the heart of Clive’s system.  According to Clive, “mono-cropping has the same effect on soil biology as a human eating nothing but junk food”.   The farm has therefore abandoned a traditional rotation and instead makes crop decisions “opportunistically” depending (largely) on the needs of the soil.   Crops include winter wheat, winter OSR, spring oats, spring beans, linseed, and peas.[1]  Further diversity is added through cover crops, which are sown wherever there is a window of 8 weeks or more between cash crops.[2]  These also ensure that something is in the ground capturing sunlight and carbon at all times.

Rethinking nutrition.  The transition to no-till also forced the farm to rethink plant nutrition.  When soils are ploughed, soil nitrogen is broken down (mineralised) into a soluble form that can be taken up by seedlings to boost the early growth stages.  As N mineralisation does not occur under no-till, Clive has found that he needs to add an extra 20kg/ha of liquid N to the seed bed to support early seedling development.  This is particularly true for spring crops drilled in a cold seed bed.  That said, the experience of other no-till farmers suggests that N applications should return to normal levels after 5 years and may even be eliminated entirely in the long run as soil biology makes more soil N available to plants.

Healthier crops with fewer inputs.  Clive has also found that no-till produces healthier crops with fewer inputs.  He no longer uses any autumn herbicides or fungicidal seed dressings, and insecticides are used only as a last resort.  Instead, the focus is on growing healthy plants that can withstand disease and natural pest control.  This is achieved by supplying plants with trace elements and by cutting out pesticides that disrupt the natural ecosystem balance.  For example, cutting out pyrethroids that kill slug-eating spiders has significantly reduced both slug populations and the need for slug pellets (from 15T/ha in 2000 to just 0.5T/ha today).  Clive also hasn’t sprayed OSR for flea beetle for the past two years, while natural control of aphid populations has significantly reduced the incidence of BYDV on the farm.

A low-capital system.  Clive emphasised that the transition to no-till is not about equipment but is about agronomy and soil health.  In fact, no-till is a fairly low capital system – Clive currently has just two 220hp tractors with a modified [ ] drill.  He also cautions against an “all or nothing” approach, arguing that “there nothing wrong with keeping the old machinery for occasional use”.  That said, he is a firm believer that “the best subsoiler you can get is a cover crop”.

Greater flexibility.  The introduction of no-till has also impacted the timing of operations.  Autumn drilling typically starts in September, about two weeks earlier than on conventional farms.  In Spring, the farm starts drilling almost 2 weeks later than average.  Cover crops are generally sprayed off shortly after drilling (provided that it won’t harm the new crop) and drilled within a day after harvest.  The move to more spring cropping has also helped to make operations more relaxed, building more flexibility into the system.  The relatively low cost of establishment moreover means that there is little risk in trying a crop even if conditions/timing are not ideal.

A better bottom line.  The move to no-till has improved profitability due to lower capital and input costs. The biggest savings have been on fixed costs (labour and capital), although there have also been variable cost savings through reduced fuel, insecticide, herbicide, and fungicide use.

A farm in transition

John and Tim Ashton farm approximately 200 hectares around Soulton Hall, Shropshire.  The farm includes a wide variety of soils, with some fields containing up to four different types.  In 2013 the farm moved from a min. till to a zero till system, a decision driven by concerns about weed control and the need to build greater resilience to adverse weather and soil conditions.

Just two seasons into the transition, the farm has already seen benefits to soil health.  Areas of the farm that were previously waterlogged have become productive as infiltration rates have increased.  Soil structure has improved, with most samples aggregating into a healthy “cottage cheese-like” form.

They have also seen benefits in terms of reduced inputs.  This year, they have applied no autumn herbicide on their wheat and only two lots of fungicide.  Tim is keen to get away from “couch potato wheat” that relies on external inputs for nutrients and disease control.  Plants should instead be working with the soil biology to access the nutrition they need to maintain healthy growth.

Going forward they expect to increase the diversity of crops, which is currently limited to wheat, rape, and beans.  And while they continue to grow some potatoes, they plan to phase these out once the no-till system is well-established.  They would also like to introduce cover crops, which will be selected depending on the problems that need addressing in individual fields.

Even at this early stage, the Ashtons have learnt several valuable lessons.  Next season they will be adjusting nutrition, applying liquid N and molasses at establishment to get the young plants out of the ground quicker.  They also plan to move their drilling dates to get the crop into the ground as early as possible going forward.  They are also trying to stop judging crops cosmetically early in the season.

The transition has not been without its stresses, however, and Tim emphasised the importance of building a good network of more experienced farmers to provide advice and “therapy”.  The Ashtons have been very grateful for the incredible support they have received from other ‘no till’ famers, many of whom have been hugely generous with their time.

[1] Clive is also experimenting with companion cropping, e.g. mixing peas and OSR.

[2] Clive has been exploring ways of generating a direct return on these, e.g. through grazing cull ewes bought cheaply in November and sold as the lamb price rises in mid-March.

Top Tips

  • Experiment to find how no-till can work for you
  • Build a no-till network for support and guidance
  • An established no-till system brings greater cropping flexibility and improved field access
  • The best subsoiler you can get is a cover crop
  • Manage your cover crops like a cash crop
  • Choose your cover crops to address specific issues in individual fields
  • Think about both species and varieties of cover crops
  • Use leguminous cover crops for free N

For further information contact:

David Miller – fowell103@hotmail.com
Stephen Briggs – stephenb@innovationforagriculture.org.uk
Tim May – tim@kingsclere-estates.co.uk
Georgia Eclair-Heath – Georgia@innovationforagriculture.org.uk