Farming heavy soils at Studley, Warwickshire, the Smalley family is under pressure each year
Farming heavy soils at Studley, Warwickshire, the Smalley family is under pressure each year to establish crops successfully despite leaving drilling as late as possible to control the increasing black-grass problem while, all the time, trying to reduce costs. A new disc cultivator, purchased in early 2015, is key to the process. David Williams reports.
Trading as CD & CE Smalley, the family farm is approximately 140ha (350 acres), and is a mix of owned land and some farmed under share farming agreements. It is all heavy clay, some of which is red clay marl, and most of the fields are undulating which means conditions can vary within a small area.
Cropping is mainly wheat and oilseed rape as well as some spring barley, and peas have also been added to the mix this year as well as some cover crops. “We have brought spring barley back into the rotation,” explained farmer Chris Smalley, “and we have no oilseed rape of our own this year, but still have some on the share-farmed land. Oilseed rape didn’t fit in with our rotation and the peas are providing the replacement. We grow only first wheats, as our land is excellent for the crop, so our usual rotation is wheat, winter barley, spring barley and peas or oilseed rape.”
The black-grass problem has resulted in a policy of deliberate late drilling each year, although, after the end of September, conditions usually become too challenging to continue work until the land dries out in the spring. “We are keeping on top of the black-grass,” said Chris, “using stale seedbeds in early autumn and with our reintroduction of spring cropping, but the spring crops are proving the most effective measure we have taken so far. Harvests are always late in this area, so opportunities for more than one stale seedbed and spray treatment are rare, and we struggle to achieve one at all during some years. The 2015 harvest was a perfect example; the crops weren’t ripe when the weather was good, and as soon as they were fit then the weather broke and it was too wet to harvest so we were very late finishing.”
The land is farmed by Chris, with his son Ben, and as well as looking after the arable crops the family provides a contract ground-works and land drainage service using their own specialist machinery for farmers and landowners in the local area.
The crop establishment regime has been predominantly minimum tillage in recent years, although some land is ploughed and then power harrowed and Chris explained that he has been keen to move away from the expensive establishment system, particularly with the lower crop margins available. “We have reduced the amount of land we farm, and want to reduce the horsepower requirement and save running costs. The heavy clay can form large clods in drier years and we had a particular issue in the autumn of 2014 and had to power harrow large areas to break up the clods ahead of the drill. Our system has revolved around a 270hp tractor, but it sits in the shed most of the year and, having given up some of the land we farmed, we have had an opportunity to look again at how we establish our crops. We needed to maintain flexibility and high work rates due to the limited operating windows we have here, and we also knew we needed to improve our soils. For years the organic content has been falling and we have realized that we need to improve the top few inches of soil, and use techniques that avoid the need to pull up the poorer soils from underneath.
The decision was made to move to direct drilling into lightly cultivated topsoil when conditions allow, so that crops could be established quickly with minimal land preparation. The drill chosen was a Weaving Sabre Tine, purchased in 2014, and it has worked two seasons very successfully, coping well with the heavy soils. “With the Sabre Tine, we can just go in and get it done, and the tines work well, even on dry hard ground without bringing up clods from lower down,” explained Chris.
The direct drill meant that only light surface cultivation was needed to create the stale seedbed for black-grass and to chop the straw residues, as well as to lightly cultivate the surface ahead of the drill. Weaving’s new Short Disc cultivator had been seen by Chris, and he felt its design features would make it ideal for the task, replacing the farm’s heavy stubble cultivator for the light cultivations. He saw one in action on a local farm and was immediately impressed with its performance.
Several other cultivators had already been trialled, but the Short Disc’s large rubber-mounted discs on the compact frame and folding design meant it was suitable for use on smaller tractors, but could penetrate well even in hard, dry conditions while the clearance provided allowed it to cope well with large amounts of trash as well as the heavy sticky soils. “It has a superb simple design, excellent build quality and it was very competitively priced,” he added.
A new 4m hydraulic folding version of the cultivator was ordered direct from Weaving and delivered in Spring 2015, just in time to carry out some of the spring cultivations which resulted in very successful crop establishment. “We experimented this autumn on rape stubble using the discs followed by the Sabre Tine without any other cultivation and the soil structure created is noticeably better than elsewhere in the field and the crop looks very good. The trial area was on just a 20m strip of the field while the remaining area was prepared using our heavy min-till stubble cultivator followed by a seedbed cultivator, and crops on the trial strip look the best in the field by far, although it had the lowest establishment costs.
“We usually operate the discs at approximately 14kph,” explained Chris, “and the resulting high work rates mean we can establish stale seedbeds far more quickly than we used to when we used our heavy min-till cultivator operating at a shallow depth. With black-grass such a problem, we will continue to use stale seedbeds as a means of control, and the high work rates mean that if there is the possibility to create two stale seedbeds in a season, then we will be able to take advantage. We have some quite stony ground as well as the heavy clay and the Short Disc performs well on all of it, so it is a very versatile piece of kit.”
Only 10ha (25 acres) of the farm was ploughed during last autumn, and that was just because oats were being planted, following winter barley, and Chris wanted to ensure there would be no volunteers. Manure had also been applied, requiring incorporation, and after ploughing the Weaving cultivator was used to prepare the surface ahead of the drill and it left a superb level and clod-free finish, he commented.
Looking to the future, Chris believes that his cultivations and crop establishment could be performed with just the Weaving discs and drill and the one tractor. “We have trialled some black oats, oil radish, and vetches as cover crops this year to compete with the black-grass and increase the organic matter available and if this proves successful then we will look at this an option for future years. The Short Disc will be ideal to chop and incorporate the plants without us needing to plough, and costs little to use. We know we have to have a long-term strategy to improve our soil quality while tackling the grassweeds and the Weaving Short Disc is a key tool for this and, with the Sabre Tine drill, will help us achieve our aims.”
The Short Disc has been operated this year behind a Case IH Magnum 270 as well as a smaller 140hp Case IH Maxxum, mainly being used with a Case CVX 195, which is more than adequate on the steep banks. “Even on our heavy land the smaller tractor has coped easily, achieving the high speeds necessary to obtain the best results and the discs have the weight and build quality to stay in the ground, even when conditions are very tough. Approximately 200ha (500 acres) have been cultivated so far, with some of the land having had two passes, and we have had no problems that couldn’t be sorted through minor adjustments. The rear press can block on our land when it is very wet, but the only time this has happened was when we shouldn’t have been on the field at all, and no other machine would have coped any better.
We are achieving work rates in excess of 40ha (100 acres) per day, so can more than keep up with the combine and release the tractor for other tasks too and its performance breaking up the surface has avoided the need for us to use the power harrow at all this year so we are delighted with our choice. It does just what it is supposed to, it does it cheaply and it does it well “I am all for simplicity and low power requirement these days.” he added.