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Challenging venue for demonstrators

Power in Action 2015, the bi-ennial event, has managed to obtain land which will pose a challenge

All too often, organisers of cultivations demonstrations are criticised for selecting land that is easily worked and guaranteed to produce good results, no matter what the weather does but, again this year, organisers of the bi-ennial Power in Action event have managed to obtain land which will pose a challenge, whatever the ground conditions are on the day. David Williams reports.

The venue for the 2015 Power in Action heavy land cultivations event is Thurlow Estate Farms Ltd, near Haverhill, Suffolk. The land is fairly level, and soils are predominantly Hanslope chalky boulder clay. The fields are moderately well-drained and recent soil pits have shown the land to be in good overall condition. No cultivations will have taken place prior to the event, which will see exhibitors tackling stubble from the previous first wheat crop with straw and chaff chopped from the combine.
The 2015 Power in Action event takes place on Wednesday 9th September between 10am and 4pm at Thurlow, near Haverhill, Suffolk, on almost 60ha (150 acres) of land kindly offered by the owners and manager of Thurlow Estate Farms Ltd. Traditionally a heavy land demonstration, this year’s event won’t disappoint, as the well-maintained soils beneath the wheat stubble require suitable equipment and techniques, to achieve the desired results.
This year sees several new exhibitors taking part and will include brands not seen working for many years, as well as more familiar names which have attended regularly.

Thurlow Estate Farms Ltd includes approximately 4,800ha (12,000 acres) of arable land in five blocks, the largest around Thurlow where its main base is located, and where the event is due to take place. The estate is farmed as a single enterprise; heavy land sites including Shudy Camps, Horseheath and Ashton, sharing a single rotation, while one lighter land block, at Balsham, has a different cropping policy. A block cropping policy was adopted in recent years, replacing a system in which each block had its own rotation.
“Our heavy land is mainly Hanslope chalky boulder clay,” explained farms director Andrew Crossley. “Our objective is to maintain a diverse and sustainable rotation and, while it has been common practise to keep pulses apart in the past, we are keen to do the same for oilseed rape too, growing it only at a sustainable frequency.”

The seven year rotation is all first wheats, with break crops of beans, oilseed rape and peas, but also includes one barley after one of the wheats providing the best possible entry for oilseed rape. “We believe oilseed rape should only be grown where there is a good entry crop, and the best opportunity for this is following winter barley,” he stressed.
On the light land farm, where the soils are Swaffham Prior series, the rotation is over five years and also includes sugar beet, but this is grown only in part of a block, alongside oilseed rape, so the beet crop is grown on each field after a nine year break.
The block rotation policy is proving successful according to Andrew. “It has revolutionised our efficiency, and more than halved the number of locations in which the various crops are grown,” he explained. “This year, for example, we have wheat in just three locations where previously there were eight, and this means just three moves for the combines and allows all field operations to progress efficiently with minimal time wasted for transport between sites.”

Successful cultivation regime
Cultivations on the heavy land are predominantly minimal tillage; Great Plains SLD heavy cultivators working the stubbles immediately after harvest. Some land is ploughed, but mainly for spring crops, a policy adopted as a part of the fight against black-grass, the objective being to leave seeds buried and undisturbed for as long as possible to reduce viability. “We plough for beans,” said Andrew, “but otherwise try to leave the weed seeds buried for six to seven years and that policy seems to be working.
Attention to detail on the estate farms is considered important to protect the challenging soils. Andrew Crossley has engaged a soil consultant to provide analysis and advice on the estate’s cultivation system. In an effort to maximise tillage performance while minimising surface disturbance, the farm’s subsoilers, oilseed rape drills and Great Plains SLD primary cultivators have all been fitted with Tillso Sabre tines. All farm machinery operators have attended on-farm courses on soil structure, which helps them optimise machine performance and identify issues. Pictured with Andrew checking one of the SLD’s Sabre tines is machinery operator Malcolm Ager.

The complication arises if weather and soil conditions at, and after, harvest are unsuitable for minimal-tillage and we might then have to plough the land which is for barley following wheat. We have to maintain some flexibility, as our soils are challenging and we have to keep going and get the crops established so, if necessary, we will plough as often as needed.”
Andrew said that black-grass is always a challenge but that on the estate, the weed isn’t as much of an issue as for some other farms. “We have always had a spring break crop in the rotation and I believe this has helped,” he explained. “We have a zero-tolerance approach to the weed and, in addition to not ploughing, we will sacrifice areas of fields where black-grass patches are noticed, burning off the affected areas of crops in May using Roundup before the weed seeds can be shed. We did this in several areas three years ago, and can see clearly the success of this now, with those areas free of the weed this year.”
Other techniques include delaying drilling of the worst affected areas for a month, from late September to late October, and this has also resulted in black-grass free crops, he explained. “We create a stale seedbed in August and will apply Roundup as many times as flushes of the weed appear, but if another cultivation is needed we would rather roll the field than till the surface as that only brings up more seeds. It has a further benefit in improving conditions for drilling too,” he added.
Pre-emergence Avadex is also used within the black-grass control programme, and Andrew said he believes the treatment improves control from mid-60s per cent to the high 90s, in problem areas.
Andrew said an area of interest for the farm is cover crops, but that he remains undecided as to what should be planted. “Having something growing on the land during the autumn rather than leaving land bare will help soil structure and control soil moisture, so I am sure there will be a benefit,” he explained. “However, I am of the opinion that a simple, low-cost crop such as oats or mustard would be a lot better than nothing, and might even provide benefits close to some of the more expensive seed mixes on offer.”

Free draining soils essential
Ensuring free draining soils is seen as essential and there is a programme of subsoiling the entire farm once, over several years, before adopting a headland subsoiling policy in farm blocks following oilseed rape and before beans. “We use RTK across the farm and know our tramlines will always be in the same place, so see no need to pull them up and loosen ground which won’t be cropped each year. We haven’t adopted controlled traffic farming, but have controlled tramlines at 40m, we drill at 8m and combine at 10m, so all operations are geared to fit around the tramline widths,” he said.
Currently, RTK is used by the farm’s sprayers, drills and some cultivation equipment, but the combines are not equipped with the system, explained Andrew, as they reset their position at tramlines, and the main cultivations tractors – three Case IH 550 Quadtracs – don’t have the system currently, but will be fitted with it in the near future. Having moved away from wheeled tractors for primary cultivations and no longer ploughing in the furrows, the compaction that used to affect the soils is no longer an issue. “This is why we wanted to subsoil the whole farm once over,” explained Andrew. “We will ensure the soils are in good condition, repairing historical damage, and then try to avoid putting the problems back in.”
As part of the soil profile management programme soil and cultivations consultant, Phillip Wright of Wright Resolutions has been engaged to provide advice as to what is needed. Test holes were dug, during which the soils were found to be in generally good condition, but a few issues were noted, and Phillip has been involved in the choice of new cultivations equipment for the farms to improve conditions. “One change we have made is the move to Tillso Sabre tines for our Cousins subsoilers, SLD cultivators and Rape drills, to reduce the amount of soil disturbance. These, we see as a key component, designed especially for the UK conditions and we are applying them to as many machines as we can.”

Challenging for exhibitors
Test holes dug in the demonstration site fields revealed no major issues, and they are moderately well-drained. The surface encountered by exhibitors will be stubble from Group 4 winter wheat Revelation, and will include straw and chaff chopped by the combine.
The previous crop was oilseed rape, after which the whole area was subsoiled as part of the farm’s total subsoiling policy. “If the soils are dry, then cultivations will be hard work,” said Andrew,” as there will be a strong tendency for the soil to break up in large clods. We use time and weather to break these aggregates down, but this will be hard work to achieve on the day if moisture is lacking. Having sub-soiled it last autumn the condition is good but, from our test holes, we know there are still large aggregates under the surface. These will be broken down over the coming years by further cultivations, weather and plant roots, but will certainly be an issue this year.”
One of the main potential problems for any heavy land demonstration is that if conditions are wet, then significant damage can be caused to the soil structure. “If it is sufficiently wet that damage might be caused, then working cultivations won’t be able to take place,” explained Andrew. “Smearing and compaction are potential issues, and we know that once damage has occurred on our land, then it is expensive and takes a great deal of time to put right. Crop rooting, good drainage and effective cultivation techniques are all key to not creating a problem in the first place, and we do our best to maintain a good soil structure regime.
“My advice to exhibitors is that they should be sympathetic to conditions on the day. If the implement is causing smearing and compaction then the machine won’t be shown in its best light and I have always been of the opinion that even at a working demonstration machinery is used as it should be used, and I certainly won’t want to see ground being worked twice by the same machine,” he said.
Having recently restructured the farming operation, and the machinery fleet, Andrew said he will be intrigued to see how the various tillage implements perform, but is not currently considering any purchases. Machinery selection is based entirely on which machine is considered best for its particular task, and the result of this is that the considerable investment required in the fleet for the large farming operation is spread around a large number of dealers in the area, for the various brands.
The fleet includes the three Quadtracs, three twin-track crawlers, used for drilling, with three Vaderstad drills, as well as most secondary cultivations, and wheeled tractors used for transport and general top-work. The Quadtracs are owned but two twin-tracks and some of the wheeled tractors are hired in for the busy autumn season. “We use the twin-track crawlers as they are 8t lighter than our Quadtracs, but retain the advantages of tracks, including reduced compaction,” he said. “We are keen to reduce weight and ground pressure where possible to protect the soils and our self-propelled sprayers are both on wide 710mm tyres apart from later in the season. The combines are all on tracks too, and we use chaser bins to keep conventional grain trailers off the fields,” he added.
Following the event, field cultivations ahead of the spring bean crop will depend on how the land is left and that, to a large extent, depends on the weather. All exhibitors are expected to finish their plots to an acceptable standard, but if the weather is unfavourable, before or on the day, then plots could be left fully or partially unworked. “We will plough any land not ploughed already, and if conditions for the event are good, we might just subsoil all the land to an even depth and leave it to weather. I am quite happy to drill into land which has been min-tilled and subsoiled, and we will just have to decide on the day what is the best course of action. If necessary we will plough the lot. I am particularly interested to see how the next crop establishes after the various cultivation techniques, so will be taking note of what is operating and where,” said Andrew.

When: Wednesday 9th September 2015Where: Thurlow Estate Farms Limited, CB9 7JROpen: 10am4pmCost: Car parking and entry to the event is free

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