No-till farming ‘boosts soil health and cuts costs’
No-till farming has seen a steady increase over recent years in the UK, despite historically slower rates of adoption compared to other parts of the world.
More and more farmers are aware of this necessity to increase food production globally, and the industry is experiencing a shift towards no-till as a means to achieve better soil health and sustainable production all while cutting costs and saving time.
“The shift has been massive,” says Weaving Machinery sales director Simon Weaving. “Five years ago, farming was all about completely mixing the soil profile. Today, it’s more about lifting the soil profile, rather than mixing. Farmers are beginning to understand the very real benefits they can see when incorporating a no-till system.”
The UN recently stated that the world’s soil reserves have only an estimated 60 harvests left before complete degradation, with around a third of the world’s soil already at that point.
Michael Gove, the former environment secretary, also warned that the UK is only a few decades away from “the fundamental eradication of soil fertility”. The British government has also signalled possible incentives for farmers who promote better soil health following Brexit, though these are not set in stone.
While the importance of soil health is widely understood, rate of adoption has been slow. Part of this is the UK’s strong sense of tradition in farming, but a significant barrier to entry has been the cost. With many farms under increasing financial pressure, few are willing to invest and risk trialling a new method of farming, even if the benefits are clear.
For Weaving’s part, accessibility and affordability has always been one of its leading mission statements: “I completely understand that farmers may be wary of leaping straight into direct drilling or low disturbance farming,” says Simon. “Our drills are designed to work on conventional systems as well, for complete flexibility. Ultimately, no-till is the direction the industry is heading, and it’s a change that will directly benefit both this country’s soil health and, importantly, the financial security of UK farmers.”
No-till requires more planning but advocates are quick to highlight the benefits they have seen on farm. These include a cut in costs for machinery, labour, fertiliser, and chemicals. In turn, this leads to a marked increase in insects, birds and wildlife, as well as fewer floods and more resilient crops during droughts.
At face value, the cost savings might prove the biggest incentive for interested farmers. Savings include less money spent on diesel, parts that wear far slower, less manpower required in the field, and less horsepower (and therefore fuel consumption) during the crop cycle. These costs may be relatively small individually, but quickly add up.
In the long-term, no-till also increases worm numbers and boosts organic matter. Unlike conventional systems, no-till keeps everything underneath the surface, giving it a chance to build up. This also leads to another benefit for many farmers: a solid defence against black-grass.
Black-grass seeds can lie dormant for years before activation, which can then be caused by cultivating and mixing the soil profile. While by no means an all-purpose solution, no-till means the seed hits the floor and stays there – making spraying much more cost-efficient, effective, and long-lasting.
“We made this decision because we just had to tackle black-grass,” says one Weaving customer who adopted a no-till system. “This system was affordable and a viable route to go down. No-till has lots to recommend it in terms of preserving soil health, but to be honest ours was largely a practical decision. This is the right thing to do for our farm.”
Simon advises taking stock of your current situation: “First, look at your soil health,” he says. “If the soil is in poor health, you might not want to jump straight into direct drilling. You can use a machine like our LD top spoiler to slice into and lift up the soil. This gets air underneath before putting it back down with minimal disturbance before drilling.”
“All farmers should be seriously looking at no-till as an option for their farm,” he adds. “Year on year, we’re seeing more farms trial whether no-till can work for them. We’ve worked to deliver machinery that has the power and functionality for farms of all sizes and systems, to improve soil health – all while keeping yields strong.”
Direct strip seeding enables Eric to keep doing the job he loves
Octogenarian arable farmer Eric Lewis continues to work single-handedly, completing almost all the work on his farm at Knights Green, near Dymock.
A heart attack seven years ago made Eric reflect on life and slowed him down a little, but giving up was never an option. Instead he looked for alternatives that would allow him to keep doing the job he has always loved.
Now approaching his 81st birthday, Eric has no plans to call it a day and continues to invest in the future. Just before harvest he took delivery of a new Claydon T6c Opti-Till drill which, he says, is the key to his ability to keep farming.
“This is my life and I simply wouldn’t want to do anything else,” says Eric. “But if it wasn’t for the Claydon system I would have had to give up, because it minimises the time and physical work involved.”
Eric moved from nearby Colwall Park Farm to Hill Farm, Knights Hill in 1980, converting what was a mixed enterprise into an all-arable unit five years later so that he could do most of the work himself. Crops were established using a plough followed by a power harrow/drill combination, still the traditional method in the area. That was hard work, took a lot of time, consumed a lot of fuel and panned the soil, stunting crop development and yields.
In 2000, Eric changed to a min-till system based around an implement which incorporated tines, discs and a packer roller, behind his 230hp Massey-Ferguson. Wanting more output, he up-sized to a 370hp MF 8690 and 5m version of the same implement, but it was not the right solution. Working very long hours, Eric found that it increased the amount of black-grass, while having to work land down ahead of the drill created a huge weather risk.
In 2009 Agrii’s Stephen Earl, his agronomist for 32 years, suggested the Claydon OptiTill system of direct strip seeding, but it wasn’t until Eric left Gloucester Hospital in 2015 having been fitted with a pacemaker that he considered it more closely.
“I knew I would have to change. I could no longer do what I’d been able to and at 75 didn’t want to spend all my time in the fields,” says Eric.
After attending the 2016 Claydon open day, Eric had a 4m Hybrid drill on demonstration, and visited a local owner and then ordered a 6m mounted model. His 370hp Massey-Ferguson was more powerful than was needed, but the tractor was paid for, so Eric decided to keep it.
The 6m hybrid quickly proved itself at Hill Farm, which produces 70ha of winter wheat, 28 of oilseed rape and 20 of linseed, together with organic apples for Westons Cider at Much Marcle in neighbouring Herefordshire.
“It didn’t take long to realise that I should have changed to the Claydon years ago,” says Eric. “The leading tine is the key to the drill’s performance because it creates an ideal environment for the seed and fissures the soil between the strip seeded bands, so roots develop without restriction,” he adds.
The system also helped Eric keep on top of the farm’s black-grass, says Stephen Earl of Agrii. “I have not changed how I approach things from an agronomic viewpoint because of the Claydon System and Eric’s results speak for themselves.”
Having experienced the benefits of the hybrid, Eric purchased two other components of the Claydon system, a straw harrow and TerraStar, a simple, low cost, low disturbance shallow cultivator.
“My 7.5m straw harrow is very fast, cheap to use and moves just enough soil to get the weeds and volunteers to germinate, but in dry weather some of the heavier ground needs a bit more working and the TerraStar is just the right tool.
“When you buy a Claydon drill you must take time to understand how it works and how to use it, then give it time to work, allowing air and water to get into the soil and the worm population to return to where it should be.
“Cover crops have been grown here for three years and helped with that process, as well as bringing many other benefits.”
Eric reports improvements to soil structure and condition since introducing the Claydon system. “Its high output allows me to wait for just the right conditions, rather than feeling that I must press on regardless just to get crops in the ground. I can easily drill 28ha in a day, although the Hybrid could do comfortably much more. Establishing crops now needs so little power that I sold one of my two fuel tanks because it was no longer needed.”
After three seasons with his Claydon drill Eric took delivery of the latest OptiTill Hybrid T6c. Introduced at the end of 2018, the new model combines the high output of a 6m seeding platform with the handling characteristics and manoeuvrability of the 4m Claydon T4.
Incorporating a 3,500-litre hopper which can be used for seed only or divided 60:40 between seed and fertiliser for combination drilling, the T6c is over 20 per cent lighter and more compact than Claydon’s T6 model, which features a 5,500-litre hopper. The T6c will sow directly into stubble, in min-till situations or on ploughed/cultivated land, across the widest range of soils, conditions and crops. This enables one drill to handle any crop establishment situation, such as drilling cereals and catch crops at the same time, thereby minimising capital investment.
“Wheat averages over 10.1t/ha, but I think this will increase with the T6c,” says Eric. “It will also allow starter fertiliser to be placed in the seeding zone when drilling oilseed rape, which will help the crop to establish more quickly and reduce overall fertiliser use.
“The Claydon System is much more than just another way of establishing crops, it is ‘my system’ and I hope to be using it for many years to come.”
Conversion coulters make direct drilling affordable
Minimal disruption is key to direct drilling, according to experienced wearing part manufacturer JJ Metcalfe & Son.
“Roots and a healthy worm population will take care of aerating and draining the soil, and nutrients will come from the use of cover crops and crop rotation. This no-till approach also helps prevent black- grass establishment by leaving dormant seeds buried well below the surface, unable to germinate.”
With the above in mind, JJ Metcalfe & Son designed its range of tungsten carbide tipped, low disturbance direct drill coulters.
Designed to fit Seedhawk drills or innovatively convert Horsch CO/Sprinter series, Simba freeflow and now the Amazone Cayena drills into direct drills, the coulters have a narrow, replaceable tungsten carbide tipped blade. This cuts through the soil retaining the organic matter on the surface and posing minimal threat to the worm populace. Ensuring accurate seed placement, the blade cuts a slot to place the seed directly beneath the residues of the previous crop, while leaving virtually no surface disturbance.
With the conversion coulters starting at £78 per unit, JJ Metcalfe says it is aiming to provide an affordable step into direct drilling and maintaining soil health, which should in turn increase crop yield.
Canadian drilling system popular among UK farmers
Supporters of direct drilling have taken to social media to document their use of the Bourgault VOS system, originating from Canada and imported into the UK by Martin Lishman.
The Versatile Opener System (VOS) range offers versatility with various options of holders and compatible tips available. Tips come in single or double shoot versions to deliver seed only or seed plus fertiliser. Pulses such as beans can be delivered with the same tips or there are specific versions for this purpose.
Farmers and agronomists in Canada began exploring the benefits of reduced tillage and direct drilling nearly 50 years ago. The reasons were simple – the need to reduce soil erosion, retain soil moisture, save on fuel costs and reduce the time taken.
H.R. Bourn & Sons’ Andrew Harker shared his experience of the Bourgault VOS which he said had improved the performance of his Horsch drills: “Drilling late for black-grass control, we are seeing less smearing of soil and much less soil disturbance. This is giving us less black-grass to control in the crop, and even more crop establishment with far better rooting plants.”
James Porter of Porters Farms (Walpole) also gave the system the thumbs up: “The Bourgault VOS coulters have greatly enhanced the performance of our Horsch Sprinter drill. They are extremely versatile. We can use them on min-till land and when direct drilling.
“We have since benefitted from even seed depth and less soil movement, which has greatly helped to reduce moisture loss and resulted in improved crop establishment.”
The low disturbance and low draft generated by the tips contributes to low wear rates as well as reduced fuel costs, said Martin Lishman. This is complemented by the high chromium content of the tips and the carbide on the wings which self-sharpens as it wears and provides increased penetration with no soil smearing.