‘Soils First’ Farm Visits 2016
Southern Event, 27 June 2016
A seasoned no-till system
Tony Reynolds farms Thurlby Grange Farms, a 243 hectare arable enterprise on peat fen soils and clay loams near Bourne, Lincolnshire. Concerned about the damage to the soil caused by traditional cultivations, Tony began experimenting with no-till in 2003. He converted the whole farm to a no-till system in 2006.
The farm produces wheat, oilseed rape (OSR), and spring crops including field beans, peas, linseed, and canary grass. Cover crops (including vetch, phacelia, crimson clover, and mustard) bring additional diversity, add nitrogen, and help build soil structure. Approximately 100 hectares of the farm are under grass (under sown in winter crops) to support the beef and free-range egg enterprises. These in turn supply the farm with 10tonnes/week of P and K rich manure.
Better soil health. Since switching to no-till, Tony has seen dramatic improvements in the health and performance of his soils. Soil carbon has risen from just 2% in 2003 to more than 6% today. Soil pH has risen from highly acidic to close to neutral. Earthworm populations have also grown dramatically, with an average 1m2 area typically containing between 80 and 90. The result is better structure, water infiltration, and crop yields.
Better yields with fewer inputs. It is not unusual for yields to dip in years two to five of the transition as soil health readjusts, with yields stabilising around year eight at a higher level than under conventional tillage. The higher yields are, moreover, achieved with significantly fewer inputs. Tony estimates his crop production costs have fallen from around £260/ha for traditionally tilled crops, to just £30/ha under no-till. This is in part due to fuel savings (down from ~90 litres/ha to ~40 litres/ha) but is also a result of lower P, K, and N applications (down by 80%, 80%, and 50%, respectively).
Better blackgrass control. The switch to no-till has also helped Tony control blackgrass. 80% of black grass seeds in the soil die within one year. So if the soil is left undisturbed a further 80% of the remaining 20% will die off in year two. This, combined with highly targeted use of Atlantis on the small numbers of blackgrass plants that have appeared, has brought the weed well under control.
Equipment. A number of different drills have been used over 10 years but the farm now uses a weaving no-till GD drill with RTK to direct drill crops (including cover crops) between the stubble rows of the previous crop. OSR is broadcast (along with slug pellets) using an Autocast on the combine. Cereal crops are harvested using a stripper header (Shelbourne Reynolds), which strips the grain from the plant while leaving the stubble stood in the field. This speeds up combining, creates a good environment into which to drill the following crop, and helps to trap wind-blown soil…Tony believes his is the only farm in the area that actually gains soil during the spring soil blow!
Reduced-tillage and zero tolerance on blackgrass
Farmers Weekly Arable of the Farmer of the Year 2008, Farmers Weekly/NFU Farming Champion 2013, and founder of Forage Aid, Andrew Ward (MBE) farms 750 hectares of arable land (a mix of in-hand and contract farmed land) near Leadenham, Lincoln. The farms include areas of heavy and medium soils, as well heath land.
The principal drivers of Andrew’s no-till model are cost, soil and weed management.
Higher yield, lower costs. Andrew monitors his input costs tightly and has seen significant reductions since switching to reduced tillage. Machinery and fuel costs have fallen considerably. Staff costs have also fallen – Andrew now manages all 750 hectares with just one full-time and one part-time staff members, plus two casual workers during harvest. He also works closely with his suppliers (e.g. Agrii, GrowHow, Monsanto) to trial new technologies and products that could bring further practical improvements and cost savings.
Soil management for better soil health. Increasingly concerned by the damaging effects of conventional tillage on soil health, in 2003 Andrew abandoned the plough in favour of a one-pass Simba Solo cultivator that used discs and legs to break up compaction below the level of the seedbed. He has since reduced disturbance even further, switching to an Elita LD (Low Draught; Low Disturbance) that uses tines rather than discs to cut through surface residues without disturbing the soil. All straw is chopped and left on the field to provide P, K and organic matter. The result is better-structured and healthier soils that support higher yields than conventional tillage.
Weed management. Blackgrass management has been a major driver in realigning the farming system, rotation, and crop choices. Cultivations are strategically used to achieve multiple chits and reduce weed seed spread in the soil profile. Crop choices and varieties are selected to maximise competition, autumn crops are drilled late, and a far greater proportion of cereals are now spring sown. All of the 750ha is hand rogued for blackgrass under a zero-tolerance policy. Andrew believes that without this attention to detail many farms will build up black grass rapidly to levels where they are no longer agronomically or commercially viable.
Reduced tillage can work anywhere. Andrew is unwavering in his belief that reduced tillage can work anywhere, irrespective of soil type. He is himself farming a wide variety of soils – from light, free-draining heath, through medium, to heavy soils. The key, he argues, is to vary the crop rotation to suit the land. Andrew, for example, uses three different rotations to suit the three different soil types across the area he farms: rape, wheat, wheat on heavy land; rape wheat, sugar beet, wheat on medium to heavy soils; and rape, wheat, sugar beet, and spring malting barley on light soils.