Arable News

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Direct Action – December 2013

Soil husbandry specialist, Steve Townsend looks into the cost saving value of a modern no-till approach.

Soil husbandry specialist, Steve Townsend of Soil First Farming looks into the cost saving value of a modern no-till approach.

Counting the costs
Alongside its huge soil improving and environmental sustainability advantages, a well-planned and managed no till approach offers serious cost savings. But we can only make the most of these with the right strategic as well as tactical cost management.

The variable cost savings from moving so much less soil are certainly impressive. First and foremost we’re talking about single pass establishment rather than at least two operations. And because with direct drilling we’re working to less depth and pulling our metal almost parallel to the direction of travel not against it (like most cultivations) we need far less power – typically 30hp per metre of working rather than nearly 40hp/m.
Conventional tillage can easily require 50 litres of diesel per hectare or more. In contrast, I have no-till clients using less than 6 litres/ha. With diesel at the best part of 70ppl, this has obvious appeal.

Then we need to add in manpower costs of little more than 0.5 hours/ha against well over two hours for conventional tillage. And a considerably lower repair and spares bill from less machines with fewer wearing parts. The immediate savings quickly add up.

On top of this, of course, after a few years we should be seeing an annual reduction of 20 per cent or more in our nitrogen applications as a result of the better biological activity we’ve built into our soils through less physical disruption and better residue and cover management. Plus, if we get things right, we have progressively easier soils to work, fewer weed problems and more consistently productive crops for even greater value.

This is all very encouraging for our per hectare gross margins. Translating these gains into significant improvements in farm profitability, though, demands parallel changes in our strategic – or fixed – costs. Otherwise we could easily find superficially attractive field-by-field savings have nowhere near the impact we want where it really matters – on the bottom line.

Our key challenge is what to do with the machinery and manpower we save. After all, with the notable exception of diesel, any savings on the passes we make, the time it takes us or the horsepower we need to establish our crops doesn’t add up to what my American friends call a ‘hill of beans’ unless we do something with them.

In simple terms we have two choices; either we employ the saved costs elsewhere – across  additional managed acres or contracted out – or we get rid of any surplus. With so little full-time employed labour in most cases these days, more than anything else this makes effective farm power management the crucial consideration.

By their nature, no-till systems require fewer and lower powered tractors than other establishment regimes. In most cases, 250hp is quite sufficient against the 350hp-plus required for heavy cultivations on the same scale. So most of us will find we are well over in terms of tractor power when we make the switch.
In my experience most farms continue to be over-powered anyway. With every 250hp tractor typically costing 12,000-15,000 in interest, depreciation and insurance each year before it turns a wheel, under-employment can soon eat into any variable cost savings in a major way.

The real problem with tractor costs – unlike inputs – is that they aren’t very visible. Equally, established tractor replacement habits – based primarily on tax breaks – die hard. But die they must in favour of a far more pragmatic matching of the tractor fleet to requirements if we are to really profit from the no-till approach.

Steve Townsend rounds up this series with a summary of his no-till learnings next month. As ever, he is more than happy to discuss any tillage or soil management issues, interests or concerns with Farmers Guide readers by e-mail on [email protected] or by phone on 01452 862696.


  • Written by: Farmers Guide
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