Case study1

Direct decision allows independence

Labour limitations were the primary reason for the arrival of a Claydon direct drill at J Struthers and Son’s Astwick Bury Farm, Stotfold, on the Herts/Beds border two years ago. Prior to this, and following the retirement of the farm’s only employee ten years ago, Madeleine Palmer had been using contractors for most of her in-field operations. With a livery yard run alongside the family’s 140ha arable enterprise, this seemed like the best solution to balance the needs of the farm with the yard work –– with father Jim looking after the combining.

But although the working relationship with her contractor had previously been good, two things prompted the farm’s drilling operation to be taken back in-house. The first was the fact that the contractor was switching to a wider sprayer boom width, which would’ve forced a move to wider tramlines. The second was the degree of success the contractor had achieved establishing oilseed rape on the farm using a direct drill –– leading her to consider the same approach for establishing wheat. “Previously, we’d been using a conventional system of ploughing and power harrowing for crop establishment, but there’s no doubt it was costly in terms of labour and fuel.” Due to commitments with a young family just over ten years ago, she began using contractors for all field operations apart from combining and this worked very successfully –– with technology, such as variable rate spreading, helping to raise the farm’s yields.

Although conventional methods were initially used to establish all crops, the job of rape sowing was given to the contractor’s Claydon V-drill in 2006. “It wasn’t the first time we’d tried direct drilling on the farm, but when we previously direct-drilled some wheat and rape back in the ‘90s, it was something of a disaster.

The drill we used moved too much soil, and we lost too much moisture in the very dry conditions. “But I wanted to give it another try, given that drill design has moved on since then. Admittedly, once the contracting charges were taken into account, the cost saving wasn’t that huge, but the system worked well –– and being a quick and simple one-man operation, it was very impressive. ”At the time, she was keen to take more of the farm work back in-hand, but with having the livery yard to run as well, she needed a system that would keep the number of hours in the tractor seat to a minimum.

Establishment costs cut

Over the next two years, the farm’s rape yields were maintained, at the same time as establishment costs being cut. But it was the speed of the operation, and the reduction in the number of passes to establish the crop that convinced Madeleine Palmer to consider establishing cereals using the same method –– subsequently investing in the farm’s own drill. “There didn’t seem to be many people direct drilling wheat at the time, and I learned that, while some had tried to do so with the Claydon V-drill, it had suffered from problems with trash accumulating in-between the tines. “Others were extremely sceptical about how successful the system would be with wheat but Claydon had a lot of people establishing the crop effectively using a direct drilling system –– including their home farm –– and having seen some cereal crops established with Claydon drills, I didn’t see any reason why it wouldn’t work here. “The land on which our contractors had direct-drilled rape appeared to have a good tilth after the crop had been cut, and it seemed to be the wrong approach to plough that under. Perhaps more importantly, not exposing the soil by turning it over meant we retained valuable autumn moisture at the time of drilling.”

Following a visit to the Claydons’ farm to see direct-drilled wheat in similar soils to her own, a 3m SR drill subsequently arrived at her own farm in time for autumn 2009. It was paired with a 150hp Claas Arion 630 CIS which had taken over as the main tractor earlier that year. “Yet having a new tractor and drill meant there was a lot to get used to –– you can’t just buy a new drill and head straight for the field,” she believes. “Taking advice on setting it up is essential to get the best results.

“I’ve heard of people who’ve sold their drills after just a year or two because they can’t get on with them, but I think part of it is due to farmers being reluctant to seek advice. Claydon sell direct, with no dealer involvement, and they take a very personal interest in the machines they sell. “It’s good to have someone at the end of the phone whenever I’ve needed reassurance or guidance at any time.” The value of that kind of back-up quickly became apparent the first time the drill was put to work, recalls Madeleine Palmer.

Early experience

“In the very first field I drilled, I found it difficult to get the loosening depth of the leading tines just right, and the sowing depth of the coulters didn’t relate to each other, with the A-hoe coulters working too deep. But after a call to Jeff Claydon, it was clear the problem was to do with the top link, rather than the depth wheels.” His advice is never to ‘boil’ the soil, or move too much of it when drilling. “I didn’t fully appreciate the way the machine is set-up until the first time I used it myself. The two frames of the drill work independently, with the leading chisel tines mounted on the main frame creating the loosened band of soil for the seed to be sown into, whilst the coulter tines are mounted on a sub-frame to provide even depth control.

“My initial problems were down to the fact that the leading breaker tines were working around 50mm too deep, at a depth of around 150mm, which made a lot of difference to our progress –– exposing more soil than was strictly necessary in the dry conditions, and also bringing up lumps.” She believes the key is to set the drill up on concrete first to make sure the tines are level –– subsequently ensuring the breaker tine depth is just below that of the A-hoe coulters. “With rape, it’s a matter of getting just under the surface tilth.

There’s usually enough moisture there to encourage the seed to chit within 3-4 days –– and this season, the wheat chitted in about the same time period.” Straw at Astwick Bury Farm is removed from the land prior to rape sowing (i.e. after second wheat) –– mainly because Madeleine Palmer has a good buyer for it. She reports relatively few problems from soil compaction as a result of baling and loading, and cites even-distribution of chopped straw after first wheats as being more of an issue.

“Our straw buyers are careful not to create too much traffic, and we unload the combine on the headlands to limit the compacted areas.” She uses a straw rake following rape to “bring daylight” to the slug eggs laid under the chaff, so they’re controlled prior to crop emergence. “I think a straw rake is essential –– they should probably be sold in a package along with each drill –– to just tickle the soil surface and create a bit of tilth for the weeds to chit, as well as distributing the chopped straw evenly.” However, she stresses that it’s a job that needs to be done in dry conditions. “We aim to rake once –– or twice if possible –– but leaving the stubble relatively intact to help deter pigeons.

Everything gets raked whether the straw has been removed or not –– regardless of the straw/chaff distribution.” The farm runs an 18-year-old, 4.5m Claas Dominator 88 combine which doesn’t produce the best chop or spread due to its age, admits Madeleine Palmer. “At first, an old set of zig-zag harrows was tried as an alternative to raking but it didn’t result in the sort of redistribution we wanted, so a second-hand straw rake was purchased in time for our second season with the drill.” People shouldn’t get too worried about the idea that no-till drilling is all about making just the one pass, she believes.

“Straw rake passes are quick and they don’t consume a lot of fuel –– helping the evenness of crop establishment a great deal. “They don’t even need to be very deep –– the aim isn’t to move the ground.” To date, there’s been no need for chisel ploughing or subsoiling to alleviate compaction, she continues. “The ground seems to hold the traffic better on the unmoved lad in-between the rows.” One of the other key drivers behind the switch to no-till was the farm’s agronomist, Michael Hitchford, who’d had a good deal of experience with direct drilling. “Good agronomy is extremely important with this system,” believes Madeleine Palmer. “I’ve been fortunate to have Michael working alongside me as he’s as passionate about the system as I am.

System ‘more suited’

“While some people might suggest that, in a bad blackgrass area, problems can develop over time with direct drilling –– we’ve actually found the system is more suited to controlling it.” With time to make two passes with the straw rake, it provides two bites at the cherry in terms of chitting and spraying-off, she adds. Rape drilling begins on around 19 August, with first wheat sowing commencing just under a month later. Crops get two passes with an ATV and pelleter after drilling, but slug problems are reckoned to be no worse than they were when the straw was being incorporated.

Drilling is done at a slight angle tothe previous crop, with the aim being to re-establish the same tramlines every season. “While working straight onto the stubble allows for greater flexibility in terms of the conditions in which drilling can take place, there are limitations nonetheless. “As with any other system, there are times when you shouldn’t be trying to force things, and it’s better to wait for the soil to dry out a little. But direct sowing

does expand the drilling window, and not just in wet autumns. “In dry conditions, direct drilling makes more sense to me than any other system as the moisture present just under the soil surface isn’t lost.” In that respect, it would make a good system for light land as well, she believes. “Various farmers in the area have asked us to drill trial areas of cropping for them, and I’m happy to take on contract drilling jobs whenever they fit in with my current workload. But the customer has to have the right approach to the idea, and to recognise how the system works in terms of the package of wider rows, lower seed rates and the need for the straw rake.” Madeleine Palmer reckons the drill’s ability to work quickly means she can easily cover 20ha/day with oilseed rape and 12ha/day with wheat –– with drilling taking place in-between her livery duties.

“It’s difficult to make comparable fuel use figures as we hadn’t sown our own crops for a number of years prior to buying the drill. But in our first season, we saved £9,500 in contract drilling costs, so in that respect, the drill will soon pay for itself. “And we’re certainly saving a good deal of fuel, compared to what we were using the last time we established our own crops.” Switching to the direct drill has also provided the opportunity to trial the use of wider row spacings for better light interception and growth –– and both wheat and rape are now being sown in 30cm rows.

The farm is also experimenting with ever-lower seed rates “I’m not being particularly brave about it, but we keep cutting our rates year-on-year –– drilling first wheats at 275 seeds/m2 (140kg/ha) this season and second wheats at 325 seeds/m2 (170kg/ha). “While our usual rate for oilseed rape is 2.75kg/ha, we had a small problem with the drill in one field last autumn and unintentionally drilled at a much lower rate than intended.

Even so, the crop still looks pretty good.” Jeff Claydon reckons rape will grow successfully in 60cm rows –– double the farm’s current spacing. “But for the moment, I think we’ll stay with what we know works well.” While direct drilling is generally reckoned to be a lower cost operation than conventional or min-till establishment, many farmers expect yield penalties to be the price for such savings. However, Madeleine Palmer has been pleased with the way her wheat and rape has performed under the new regime. “Claire and Cordiale have averaged just under 10t/ha, ranging from 8.5-10.5t/ha, and rape has yielded an average of 4.3t/ha –– with chemical costs broadly similar to what they were.” However, in the longer term, she believes the farm may have to return to Avadex (tri-allate) for blackgrass control.

“We’ve had one wet autumn and one dry one since we began running the new drill, and while yields were down slightly last year, I think it’s proved itself in both sets of conditions. We can now do all our own drilling in less than a week for each crop.” Success with the drill has given Madeleine Palmer the confidence to take more of the farm’s operations back in-house, and she recently bought a new Sulky fertiliser spreader with variable-application capability to make full use of the farm’s SOYL analysis maps.

The only field operation still contracted-out is spraying. “So in terms of allowing us to move back to controlling more of our own farmed operation without employed labour –– and without impinging on the time required for the livery enterprise –– direct drilling has been a really good move for us. “Being able to run the farm without extra labour is as important as the savings we’re making from no longer having to employ contractors for drilling.”