The incredible power of rotational ploughing

is, in my opinion, greatly overstated.

Several years ago I went to a Procam talk about blackgrass. I was going to paraphrase what they said, but a quick google brings it up:

Blackgrass seeds decline quickly at depth, so the numbers of viable seeds brought back up will be low, especially if ploughing is only done on a rotational i.e. no more than 1 year in 3.

Well, I don’t see it. Until this year we have always ploughed for sugar beet, and it’s been interesting to see what has happened with black grass in these fields over the last five years. This field pictured below was last ploughed four and half years ago.

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Does that look like adequate weed control? Not to me. Luckily this is just the corner of the field, the rest is fine.

But maybe it would have been even worse without the plough? Luckily we have some no-till sugar beet this year to compare. And like more and more of our fields, it also has a problem patch of blackgrass. This is a ploughed section (also previously ploughed four and a half years ago):

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And this is a couple of meters away in the no-till:

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I’m not claiming that no-till has less grass weeds, but I fell pretty confident in saying there are no more. And for the same level of control, is it better to spend all the time, money and soil quality ploughing, or to go and do something productive? What I will confidently claim is that there are many, many fewer broad leaf weeds in the no-till area. To be fair, there are less sugar beet plants as well…

For more balance, here’s a bit of no-till with plenty of weeds:

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The eagle-eyed will notice there are more weeds in the disturbed seeded area than between the rows. This is even more evident in the strip-tilled plots.

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And finally, a field that I mentioned in the last blog. It currently has rapeseed growing on it, before that wheat, and before that sugar beet. Before the sugar beet it field had gone five and a half years without being ploughed, but still there is a really terrible patch of blackgrass which we are struggling to deal with. I put this picture up last time, but I will re-use it because it’s so clear how big a weed burden is there.

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Enough said.

Day 64 – How no-till soils are different in Brazil

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Sao Paolo airport has four terminals. In the hour and a bit I spent trying to find a sim card, some reasonably priced Brazilian currency, and a bus to the Ibis hotel, I visited them all, some more than once. It’s a fun way to end the day, especially at 11pm. The next morning I had to fly out early to Brasilia, and luckily I set my alarm as the hotel forgot the wake-up call.

In the afternoon I visited the Embrapa Cerrado centre for a very quick but still useful couple of hours. Embrapa is the Brazilian government run agricultural research organisation, which is apparently very well thought of by the farmers – probably a world first?

The distinct stripes on the left hand plant are due to a Sulphur deficiency. The soil that grew the right hand plant has been treated with gypsum (calcium sulphate) and does not show the same signs

The distinct yellow stripes on the left hand plant are due to a sulphur deficiency. The soil that grew the right hand plant has been treated with gypsum (calcium sulphate) and does not show the same signs

The land here has come out of what they call Cerrado, which is a type of scrub land, but with some tall trees as well. The soil is very deep (they have found roots going down over 4m) and physically well structured. However it is naturally pretty low in fertility, with a natural SOM level of 3-3.5%, and very little in the way of nutrients. It’s also got a pH of 4, and some problems with aluminium toxicity. As a result of this, there are large responses to the standard NP&K fertilisers, and gypsum also has a large beneficial effect both on soil structure & rooting, as well as feeding the plant sulphur. If you ignore these chemical inputs, and farm with tillage, it’s possible to drop the SOM to under 0.5% within five years.

They’ve done quite a bit of work on no-till, which has produced an average yield benefit over the long term of 10%. In some years, growing soya, it has been as high as 40%. They put this difference down to the increased SOM levels under no-till; after 11 years, the tillage plots have 25% less carbon per hectare. This makes a difference with nutrient uptake efficiency in general, but they have specifically tested what happens to organic phosphorus levels – this is the type of phosphorus that is easily utilised by the plant. After 10 years of no-till the organic P is 6% higher, and after 17 years that goes up to 26%.

When this trial started, 17 years ago, it was given 240kg/ha of phosphate. Since then it has had none, and each year the crop has become worse and worse. At this point it is hardly produced any plant at all, let alone a harvestable crop. As a side effect, the organic matter is rapidly disappearing because there is so little plant residue being returned to the soil

When the trial started, 17 years ago, this plot was given 240kg/ha of phosphate. Since then it has had none, and each year the crop has become worse and worse. At this point it is hardly produced any plant at all, let alone a harvestable crop. As a side effect, the organic matter is rapidly disappearing because there is so little plant residue being returned to the soil

Like in Argentina & Uruguay, here in Brazil they are just starting to wake up to the idea of cover crops. One trial compared a standard tillage and summer fallow method (the traditional way) against using no-till and a winter cover crop. The traditional method required 25t/ha of carbon to be put onto the surface to retain 1t/ha in the soil. No-till with a millet cover crop needed 12t/ha to retain the same 1t/ha, and using mucuna (a legume you will no doubt remember from Day 61) meant that number dropped to 7t/ha. The theory here is that because the creation of SOM needs nitrogen, the process is more efficient when there is a legume in the ground. However, the millet produced over double the biomass of the mucuna, so although it is less efficient, if you want to build SOM fast, that (and probably added fertiliser) would be the way to go. It might seem fairly obvious that trying a mix of the two plants might be a good idea, but I’m not sure South America is ready for that concept just yet.

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Eucalyptus trees with an understory of Brachiaria, a widely used type of C4 grazing grass

That was the first half an hour outside, the second was spent looking at an interesting agroforestry scheme. Some of the land has been very badly degraded by over-grazing and poor pasture management, to the point where it is hardly productive any more. One of the solutions Embrapa is looking at is to use crops, grass and trees to turn it around. Also, since us Europeans chopped all our trees down long enough ago that it doesn’t count, we’ve told the Brazilians they can’t do the same to the Amazon. Now they need to find other ways to make their flat pack furniture, and this might be a solution.

Eucalyptus are planted in rows, and for the first two years they can grow three crops per year between the trees: first comes soya, and then maize, both of which can go from planting to harvest in 100 days. A cover crop is planted into the standing maize, so it is ready for grazing immediately after harvest. The same thing happens the second year, except the cover crop then becomes a permanent pasture, as in the photo above. Cattle will graze this for 10-15 years, by which time the trees are tall enough to cut. Eucalyptus has two characteristics which make it ideal for this application. It is very fast growing (in this climate it can average 6m per year), and it will also regrow after the wood has been harvested. Man-sized-cut-and-come-again. Now that the shade has been temporarily removed it’s possible to get in another year or two of cash crops before the trees are too big, and it turns back in to grazing. So the cycle continues…

On a different subject, if you’re looking for something cheery to watch, don’t go and see I Am a Girl, although it is a good documentary. If you do see it, and still feel a bit too upbeat, maybe try Once Were Warriors.

Day 61 – Jesus: Rice Superstar

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I’d only ever spent 3 hours in Uruguay before this trip, but for some reason I’ve always liked it. This time there was no queue at customs, my bag was the first off the plane (that’s a new one for me) and I could buy a cheap local sim card at the airport. A great start. Unfortunately I had not been able to arrange anything constructive for the weekend, so it was tourist time. After mucking around for a couple of days I headed to Treinta y Tres (which means thirty three), and spent the night in a hotel which was perfectly comfortable, but wouldn’t have been out of place in 1964 Bulgaria.

This morning I had an appointment with Jesus Castillo, a rice agronomist working for INIA. He had been recommended to me by Michael Eyres as someone who knew all about improving soils.

I've eaten plenty of rice, but never seen it growing

I’ve eaten plenty of rice before, but never seen it growing

INIA is partly funded by the government, and partly by the farmers, through levies on their sales. They perform trials in both cropping and livestock management, as well as having big labs which will test grains, forage, or whatever the farmer needs. Their building was quite new, and very smart, in stark contrast to similar government organisations over the river in Argentina.

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Angus x Hereford steers, finished on grass, almost ready for the freezer

They’ve got some of the best soil in the country over here, but it’s only 30cm deep, with a clay subsoil. That means they don’t have a huge water holding capacity, and so are normally either too dry, or totally flooded. Traditionally there has been a lot of grazing, and that continues today. It’s one of the few places in the world where it is standard practice to graze both sheep and cattle in the same field at the same time. I’ve always thought this sounded like a pretty sensible idea, but all my (super conservative) vet friends start having a fit when you mention it.

Some general rice photos, because its novel

Some general rice photos, because its novel

They have two research stations near Treinta y Tres, for upland and lowland systems. The upland system is dry land farming, and they are testing three rotations. All the rotations have two years where they grow soya beans – wheat – sorghum – oat cover crop. At this point they differ: one starts all over again, and the other two go into pasture, either for two years or four.

On the lowland farms, the main crop is the rice. Uruguay is the second most productive rice growing country on the planet – only the USA averages a higher yield per hectare. On the low land INIA station they also have rotation trials, ranging from intensive rice – cover crop – soya – cover crop, to the traditional rice and perennial pasture.

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The cover crop they tend to use in this lowland trial is Italian ryegrass. What’s really interesting is that they put it on with an airplane, both into the soya and the rice. Uniquely, in my experience, they are happy with the results, and say it gives a good even germination. This is understandable in the rice, as they put it on just after the field is drained, so there is plenty of moisture in the soil. In the soya it goes on about a month before harvest, timed just before the leaves start to fall off. When the leaf does come off, it covers the ryegrass seed and provides humidity to help germination. In both cases, after harvest the grass is 5cm or so tall, and gets going very quickly – to be grazed before the next cash crop is planted.

The trial results are interesting – SOM is maintained in all the rotations that include pastures, and degraded in the ones that don’t. However, they have only just started using cover crops in the last couple of years, and the hope is that this may make the continuous cropping more sustainable.

A cover crop trial of different warm season legumes. Mucuna, Crotalaria Spectabilis and Crotalaria Juncea. they seem to like straight cover crops here more than blends

A cover crop trial of different warm season legumes. Mucuna, Crotalaria Spectabilis and Crotalaria Juncea. They seem to like straight cover crops here more than blends

In the ’50s & ’60s no-till had not been adopted, and traditional farming methods were terrible at controlling erosion. The average farm lost 20-30t/ha of soil each year, into the rivers. Since the ’90s this has improved a lot, but in the last three years the government has decided it had to do something about the country’s soils – agriculture is a big proportion of Uruguay’s GDP. What they have come up with is a system whereby the landowner (and farmer if it is a different person) must submit their long-term cropping plans for approval. Trial data from INIA is used to predict how this rotation will affect the soil erosion, taking into account topography, soil types, climate, use of cover crops, pasture phases etc. The magic number is 7t/ha. If you lose more soil than this each year, you will not get approval to go farming (or else there’s a big fine). It sounds like a pretty sensible way of protecting the country’s asset, although given what has happened in the UK with the three crop rule (no one is telling ME how to farm!) I don’t think it would be a popular move – especially because here they often stipulate at least some pasture.

Apparently this opener is very good in dry conditions. Looks a lot like a T-Sem

Apparently this opener is very good in dry conditions. Looks a lot like a T-Sem

Of course it does beg the question, why settle for any soil loss at all? Apparently even with low intensity farming on native grasslands they still lose ~2t/ha/yr, but in the past something must have created the soil. Maybe God? In my opinion, if they find out how to make soil, with profitability taken out of the equation, then maybe some of those techniques could be used in day-to-day farming. Sounds like a good topic for a Nuffield.

Day 58 – Tables (water & food)

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The flight didn’t turn out so badly; I was asleep before the drinks came round, and woke up 8 hours later. After watching the excellent film Boyhood, which I couldn’t figure out how they made, we landed and got in line at immigration. A few hours later, and with some black market Pesos in my pocket, I headed south towards Trenque Lauqen. It was coming up for lunch, so I kept my eyes peeled.

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A quick u-turn was needed as I saw a place with loads of cars parked outside, and my Spanish dictionary confirmed “Parrilla” means “Grill”. The guy at the table next to me had a good looking rib of beef, so I pointed at it. “Asado?” “Si”. Three minutes later a piece of meat easily big enough to flip Fred Flinstone’s car turned up. It was a generous two person portion, or a stingy eight peoples’ worth. I didn’t manage to finish it.

That's a serving dish, not a normal plate

That’s a serving dish, not a normal plate

The next day I met up with Eduardo Herrmann, who runs a company which has three farms. One of them is near the small town of Casbas, it’s called La Florida.

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Eduardo started the day by giving us a short presentation on the farm. I say us because there were also teachers present from the local agricultural high school, and some of the farm employees too. Straight away he said that the most important technology on the farm is CREA. CREA is a nationwide organisation that gets small groups of 10-12 local farmers together to share ideas and problems with each other, aiming to make everyones’ farm better. It’s a spirit of cooperation that is unfortunately rare in the UK.

All the different soil types are mapped and used for variable rate seed & fertiliser

All the different soil types are mapped and used for variable rate seed & fertiliser

The farm is run with a long-term mindset, so the soil quality is considered carefully. They grow four main crops: soya, sunflower, maize & wheat (occasionally barley). Between sunflower and wheat they will sometimes use a cover crop of triticale or forage rye. The cover crop is grazed if it’s on the better soils, and left to be incorporated on the worst ones.

Rye residue in the bottom of a Soya field, left over from a cover crop. The eagle-eyed will notice evidence of grazing

Rye residue in the bottom of a Soya field, left over from a cover crop. The eagle-eyed will notice evidence of grazing

There are three main types of soil here. In ascending order of quality, Loma, Media Loma & Bajo. All of them are predominantly sandy, going from 82% in the Loma to 70% in the Bajo. SOM levels increase as the sand content goes down, but even on the best land they are rarely above 2%. Needless to say, the farm has been no-till for 18 years, but apart from a small layer at the top, it is very difficult to add OM to the soil: as Eduardo says “the sand eats organic matter”.

This is a handful of Loma soil, it is so soft that I could just scoop it up

This is a handful of Loma soil, it is so soft that I could just scoop it up

There was a good demonstration today of the perils that can await when comparing different areas of a field. These two soya plants (see below) were taken from opposite sides of a small road. One is Loma soil, the other Media Loma. In just a couple of meters the soil has changed so much that the plants it raises are at opposite ends of the spectrum. The moral of the story is, if you want to compare the soil from two different management practices, take them from as close together as possible.

The only difference between these two plants is the soil type - and about 3 meters of separation. The one on the right has good nodules, and a root that will reach down to more than a meter in depth

The only difference between these two plants is the soil type – and about 3 meters of separation. The one on the right has good nodules, and a root that will reach down to more than a meter in depth

On the very worst soils they plant a species imported from Africa, called Weeping Lovegrass, which provides some cattle grazing, and also stops wind erosion. It is unique in my experience, as it seems to have been successful at what it was meant to do, and hasn’t gone out of control. If only all the other introduced species were the same.

One of the techniques which came out of CREA was to measure the water table. There are 13 different sites around the farm which have 3m deep plastic pipes sunk into the ground. Every month the levels are measured with a dipstick and recorded.

Water table levels over a two year period

Water table levels over a two year period

This information is used to decide before planting crops what sort of potential they have. If the water levels are high, Eduardo knows that they will not need a lot of rain, so he feels confident in using more expensive varieties and putting down more fertiliser. Something I found very interesting was that this data allows them to see how deep the plants can send their roots, as they can check the water table height when signs of drought start to appear. Maize and sunflower will root to 2-2.5m, but wheat and soya will only go to 1-1.5m. That is pretty important, and has potential implications for nutrient scavenging too – I had been wondering how deep wheat roots go.

One of the water table measuring sites

One of the water table measuring sites

15% of the farm’s maize, and some of its soya, goes to their on-site feedlot. According to Eduardo most of the beef in Argentina is now finished on grain. What about the grass-fed reputation? “It’s history”. One of the peculiarities of the beef market here (where the average person eats 70kg per year) is that they really like their carcasses to be as small as possible. In the government’s opinion this got out of hand as smaller and smaller animals were being slaughtered, and so it is now illegal to kill a heifer or steer which weighs less than 300kg. That really means the race is on to get to this weight as soon as possible, and the animals here are finished for 90 days on a maize & soya diet and killed before the age of two. I couldn’t believe they do not feed any fibre to the cattle; apparently this causes them to get liver problems, but by the time it manifests they are hanging from a hook anyway.

I started off talking about food, and that meal was good. But this one was even better, and what a location. The seven hour drive to Rosario after lunch was less enjoyable.

Day 55 – Worm juice & Claying

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 10.51.25I spent the night near Gingin, but I’ll come back to that in tomorrow’s blog. A bit of last minute planning was called on to arrange a visit to Diane Haggerty, who farms with her husband Ian on the more marginal land on the eastern side of the wheat belt. They have an interesting story, having run a petrol station for the first part of their marriage, before buying 660ha of run down farmland next to Diane’s parents’ farm. They put all of their money in to the land, and had none left over for machinery. Luckily being next to Dad has its benefits, so they could borrow a drill and tractor. This was in 1994, and luckily two good years followed, which allowed them to make some money. In the early 2000s they took on their first bit of rented land, and promptly had a total crop failure – but they scraped through.

Since then they have managed to buy a little bit more land, but mainly the business has grown by renting degraded land that other farmers don’t even bid for. The problem here is that the leases are short term, and once they have reversed the decline in productivity, the landlords then want more money and the neighbours come in with bigger bids. Currently they farm 9,300ha, but that changes year on year.

A 200ha field - probably the average farm size in East Anglia

A 200ha field – probably the average farm size in East Anglia

Like I said at the beginning, this is really marginal land, where 2t/ha is considered a big harvest and the annual rainfall is 100mm. The name of the game is to keep down costs and reduce risk. To achieve this, Diane & Ian have focused heavily on soil health, and nutrient cycling. It is too expensive to ship in quality compost, which costs A$200 before shipping, so they use compost extract, and also worm juice. Worm juice, delicious as it may sound, is actually what seeps out the bottom of compost heaps at special worm factories. I can’t help but think it sounds like a kid’s version of Snake Oil! These two liquids are applied at 5l/ha, normally at drilling, but the worm juice can also be sprayed on to the plant directly as a foliar application. In addition to these potions, they use some herbicide, but no insecticides or fungicides. Conventional fertilisers are placed at drilling, but in such small amounts I’m amazed they bother: 1kg/ha of phosphate and between 2-10kg/ha of nitrogen. Leaf tissue testing tells them when trace elements are needed, and they are put on as foliar sprays. Needless to say, the sheep operation uses long rest rotational grazing.

So what are the results? Wheat yields are less than conventional in a good year, but the same in drier ones. Quality though is much improved, with top level proteins being produced all the time. The same is true of the sheep flock, as they have increased lambing percentages to somewhere between 90-150% depending on the season, and the wool quality (these are Merinos) normally reaching the second highest grade, AAAM. It’s also worth noting that they don’t have to de-worm the sheep, which is very unusual.

Diane says her crops stay green a lot longer than the neighbours, and showed me some photos that were fairly emphatic. Unfortunately it’s the wrong time of year for me to see with my own eyes. SOM levels are 40-50% higher than the neighbours (at the home farm), but this must be considered whilst remembering how unreliable these tests can be.

I’ve got a lot of respect for how far these two have come from starting with very little. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted, or probably been able to, do what they have. I am noticing a trend with these sort of out-there systems though. More of that in the final Australia blog.

Tagasaste, also know as Tree Lucerne

Tagasaste, also know as Tree Lucerne. The cows live permanently in these fields, eating the bushes and also the grass for a bit of roughage

After leaving Diane I went to see someone at the other end of the spectrum. Trevor Syme runs 60 cows, which he feeds on Tagasaste (see above), but is really a specialist arable farmer. Although he farms only about 60km west of the Haggertys, there is much more rain so wheat yields can reach over 4t/ha.

The delver - it takes 450hp to pull at 8km/h

The delver – it takes 450hp to pull at 8km/h

It’s still an unfriendly place to farm though, as the top soil is non-wetting sand, which means it is coated in a waxy substance which makes water either sit on the top as a puddle, or just soak through incredibly quickly. His solution is to bring up some of the subsoil clay and mix it in with the sand. There are three ways to do this,

  1. Mouldboard ploughing – doesn’t work too well on these soils as the clay depth is too variable.
  2. Delving & spading – a huge set of legs are pulled very deep through the soil (see photo above), which brings up the clay, and mixes it through the soil profile. After this a spader is used, which is a bit like putting it in a cement mixer.
  3. “Claying” – here several pits are dug in the field, and clay is mined out of them. It is then spread out over the rest of the field at a rate of…250t/ha (not a typo). A set of discs are then used to mix the clay into the top 10″. This costs almost A$1,000/ha in total.

Obviously none of these are what you might call low disturbance, but the payoff can be big. Delving and spading can give a 1t/ha increase in wheat yield, and Claying up to 1.6t/ha. It only takes 3 years or so to pay back, and should last for at least 10.

This field has been delved, but not yet spaded. The pink rock is clay that has been brought up - it has a lot of sand mixed into it

This field has been delved, but not yet spaded. The pink rock is clay that has been brought up – it has a lot of sand mixed into it

Trevor is unusual in that he grows lupins as a full season cover crop – i.e. he plants in the autumn and then sprays them off before reaching maturity. He doesn’t use sheep or cattle to graze the plants as I expected, but he just leaves them until the next autumn and sows directly into it with his NDF disc drill. The reason he does this is mainly for weed control (the dreaded ryegrass), but it also allows him to grow a fertiliser-free wheat crop afterwards.

Two farms and two very different philosophies. Which is better? Who knows?

This is an NDF drill, made in Australia. It is a single disc with a compound angle, which means it pulls itself into the ground. It's a serious bit of kit, and rivals the Cross Slot for sturdy construction - and price. Each opener is A$4,500

This is an NDF drill, made in Australia. It is a single disc with a compound angle, which means it pulls itself into the ground. It’s a serious bit of kit, and rivals the Cross Slot for sturdy construction – and price. Each opener is A$4,500

Day 52 – Some photos

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I thought yesterday was an early start, but this morning the alarm was set for 4am. Zzzzzz

More soil pits today. This is the latest Aussie tech in action. They are very proud

More soil pits today. This is the latest Aussie tech in action. They are very proud

This region, the Mallee, is renowned for its marginal arable soils. They are predominantly a fine dusty sand, but this is one of the better ones because it contains a bit of clay (15%). This field yielded about 2.2t/ha of wheat, and can get up to 4t/ha in a very good year

This region, the Mallee, is renowned for its marginal arable soils. They are predominantly a fine dusty sand, but this is one of the better ones because it contains a bit of clay (15%). This field yielded about 2.2t/ha of wheat, and can get up to 4t/ha in a very good year

A simple pH testing solution shows that the surface of the soil is significantly more acidic than what lies beneath

A simple pH testing solution shows that the surface of the soil is significantly more acidic than what lies beneath

This is an old root channel left over from before the bush had been cleared for agriculture. The hole has remained as a passage for water to run down, which has in turn bleached the sand. You can also see the salt that has been washed down with it

This is an old root channel left over from before the bush had been cleared for agriculture. The hole has remained as a passage for water to run down, which has in turn bleached the sand. You can also see the salt that has been washed down with it

Another farm no-tilling with a tined drill. You can see the deep gullies which the seed is placed in to - this acts as a structure to collect more water during "rainfall events"

Another farm no-tilling with a tined drill. You can see the deep gullies which the seed is placed in to – this acts as a structure to collect more water during “rainfall events”

They have just started using ag-bags to store grain in the field. Getting it out again is "a young mans' game"

They have just started using ag-bags to store grain in the field. Getting it out again is “a young mans’ game”

15km/h seems a ludicrously fast speed to combine at, especially with a 13.7m header. I sat on the machine for 2 hours, and we cut about 35ha.

Days 38 & 39

I don’t know if these really count as Nuffield travels, but I will scribble about them anyway. If nothing else, the locations were incredibly exotic.Screen Shot 2014-09-28 at 20.30.20These visits were only quick stops, to look at some machinery – two drills to be exact. The first, in Leicestershire, is a John Deere, and the second a Pillar Laser.

Top: John Deere. Bottom: Pillar Laser

Top: John Deere  –  Bottom: Pillar Laser

These are both interesting tools, with strong North American roots. The John Deere uses their standard single disc openers, the same that you can buy on a standard UK 750a. The difference is that JD only make machines up to 6m wide – if you want them to fit on our little European sized roads. In the rest of the world they make much bigger versions, but they are all 4m+ wide when folded.IMG_3658

When this drill was born in the US, it was 40ft (12m) wide. Last year it was imported to the UK by a guy called Steve Heard, who then spent all winter in the workshop (he claims to not know how long) cutting, welding and modifying. A bit later it popped out, having been reduced to 9m, and the fold had been changed to make it legal on our roads. One key point is that there is a separate tank for fertiliser; something the official UK machines do not offer.

Watch in HD for best effect

So what’s it like? Well, the openers are well known and well proven; there’s nothing new here apart from custom made closing wheels, that seem to work well. It looks like a brilliantly engineered solution, but one that would be beyond most peoples’ capability to make on farm. One potential question is how much weight can it put on to the discs? A 750a can manage ~200kg per opener (when the seed tank is empty). This drill can take a lot of weight off the seed tank wheels – so much so that when I visited two of the rams were bent from doing just that, and were awaiting repair. My suspicion is that there is not enough weight as is, but adding more to the frame as needed should be trivial because there is plenty of space to do it. Overall it’s a great idea, and done to a level that looks as if it came straight from the JD factory – very impressive.

IMG_3674My second visit was in Dorset, and it was to see a Pillar Laser in action. You will of course remember that I almost went to the factory in Canada back on Day 30, but I did visit a farmer who was a user. This drill is the only one in the UK (possibly Europe too?) so I was very keen to actually see it in action.

OSR planted August 28th

OSR planted August 28th

The first thing to greet me was a great looking field of rapeseed. It had been drilled on August 28th and looked excellent – certainly the best crop I have seen this year. The drill must be alright to be able to do this, but to be fair there had been quite a lot of starter fertiliser (100kg of placed DAP) and chicken muck in the spring too. It also doesn’t look like flea beetle is a problem in the part of Dorset.

Seed & fertiliser separation

Seed & fertiliser separation

The Laser has two main selling points. The main one is that it combines the lower disturbance of a disc drill with the ability of a tine (or hoe as they say in Canada) to place seed into clean soil. The second is that the seed and fertiliser are separated, both vertically and horizontally. The fertiliser is dropped down directly in the shadow of the disc, and the seed onto a little ledge created by the small winged tine. The photo above shows it pretty clearly (this seed had been blown out when stationary, it would not normally be left on top of the ground).

Wheat drilled into raked OSR stubble

Wheat drilled into raked OSR stubble

You have to be dedicated to buy one of these drills to use here. Pillar do not make machines that fold to UK sizes (sound familiar?) so it will always be necessary to get your own frame made up, and then attach the openers afterwards. One benefit of the design is that because the discs have a double angle, which can be seen in the photo four up from here, they pull themselves into the ground. This means that weight is not needed for penetration, unlike the JD (or a Cross Slot). Hence the frame can be much simpler, and the seed cart can be a separate unit. This could be a plus or a minus depending on your point of view!

Watch in HD for best effect

I’ve gone through the positives of this design, but I do feel there are some drawbacks too. Primarily there is a bit too much disturbance for what I am looking for. Admittedly it is less than a standard tine drill, but it could not be described as ULD (Ultra Low Disturbance). It is possible that agronomically this is actually a good thing, but right now I think as little as possible is desirable. The second point is that there is a potential issue with trash clearance, as can be seen in the video. The problem is that there is not a great deal of distance between the ground and the main disc bearing. I think it was exacerbated in these conditions as there was plenty of loose fluffy material right on the surface (raked cattle muck and OSR stubble), and going into a firmly rooted cover crop or untouched stubble would probably be fine. But it is still a bit of a concern.

All drills have compromises (unfortunately), but does this one have less than the others? I’m not sure: maybe if an off-the-shelf product was available, but I don’t think I am convinced enough to consider going through the hassle of having a machine custom made.

Next stop… Australia.

 

What’s happening at home (First edition)

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It’s the first non Nuffield Travel blog post. Hurray. I thought both my readers may be interested in what we have going on at home this year. Here are five little experiments, listed in what I would consider increasing order of potential for peril.

1) Cover Cropping

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Oats, Sunflower, Millet, Vetch, Phacelia, various Brassicas, Linseed

This is our third year of cover cropping. The first year I tried two fields, last year four, and this year almost 1/3rd of the entire farm’s area will have covers grown on it. Obviously I like them. I changed the mix we had previously used, and dropped out buckwheat (went to seed too quickly) and peas (expensive per seed, and we grow them in our rotation already). I kept in millet, but, for the third straight year, hardly any of it seems to have grown. It may finally have had its final chance.

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3 weeks after drilling

Harvest had a really early start this year, which was great for planting cover crops. Almost everything was in by August 2nd. Unfortunately the good weather turned cold and grey, and it took a long time for the seeds to germinate. When they finally did (I may have planted them a bit too deep as well), they grew very, very slowly for the rest of August. It has also been a bad year for slugs, and quite a few hectares have been lost to them.

5 weeks after drilling

5 weeks after drilling

Luckily the start of September has been warmer, and the growth has sped up quite significantly. I have put a few trial strips of nitrogen fertiliser on three of the cover crop fields. For the fist month nothing showed up, and I thought the money was wasted. But now that they are actually growing, everything is changing.

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Spot the fertiliser

Before the sheep get here in a month or two, I will take some samples and get them tested for dry matter content, to see whether it is worth applying fertiliser or not. My suspicion is that it will not be, but who knows. Whatever happens, it will not be a bumper cover crop season like autumn 2013 was.

The difference between bare soil and covered soil. This has a big effect on how fast a seedling will grow

The difference between bare soil and covered soil. This has a big effect on how fast a seedling will grow

2) Companion Cropping

I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years, but finally got kicked in to action because of the new ban on using neonicotinoid seed dressings (an insecticide that stops flea beetles from eating tiny rapeseed plants). The theory is that by growing a mix of plants in with your rapeseed, the insects will be confused, and may eat the companions in preference to the rapeseed.

Germination Tests

Germination Tests

The traditional (if there is such a thing yet) plant to use as a companion crop in the UK is vetch. This is well suited to our climate, and will fix some nitrogen. The main problem is that it will not die over winter, and so must be sprayed off in the spring. I thought I would go a bit different, and so chose buckwheat, lentil and fenugreek.

The final mix

The final mix

The idea here was that the buckwheat would get going early, and I had heard flea beetles liked to eat it. The lentils and fenugreek are both legumes, and so would fix some nitrogen. The real benefit is that all of these crops are very sensitive to temperature, and should easily be killed off by our relatively mild winters. I also decided to go with no pre-emergence herbicides on the companion crop field, which is a gamble. All of our rapeseed is direct drilled this year which I hope will mean we have less of a weed burden going in to winter.

Everything was slow to emerge because of the cold weather in August, but it all came eventually

Everything was slow to emerge because of the cold weather in August, but it all came eventually (although no rapeseed visible in this photo!)

So how has it worked? Slugs have been a problem, it seems to be just one of those years. It turns out that they will eat all four types of plants in the field, although buckwheat is not as tasty as the others. And the bigger question – is it deterring the flea beetle? No. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be having much of an effect. Looking at our cover crops, all of the brassicas are relatively unaffected, it’s the vetch which has taken the brunt of the attack. I wonder whether next year this should be in the companion crop mix, as a bit of a sacrifice?

Flea beetle damaged OSR, next to an untouched buckwheat plant

Flea beetle damaged OSR, next to untouched buckwheat and fenugreek plants

3) Very early drilled wheat for grazing

Now we are getting in to the realms of potentially very stupid ideas. In New Zealand they graze ryegrass crops that will then be harvested for seed. A lot of farms in the UK used to, or still do, graze their wheat crops in the spring. If you plant wheat too early, it gets too big too soon, and will suffer badly from diseases. Add all of these up and what is the logical conclusion?

 

 

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Drill wheat very early, allow it to form a huge and potentially very useful root system, and then graze in the late autumn so the plant is not too big going in to winter. Free grazing, improved yields?

This is what we are trying. 5ha of a 25ha field was drilled with wheat on August 29th, roughly three weeks before it would normally be done. The previous crop was rapeseed, and I left the volunteers to grow freely, and then drilled straight into it, as in the photos above. I decided to wait as long as I dared after drilling before spraying off the volunteers with glyphosate, and I also decided to not use a pre emergence herbicide; the idea being that any further rapeseed plants that grow will make good food for the sheep. I am also hoping that the dying volunteers will create a sort of mulch, which will keep weeds from germinating.

11 days after drilling

11 days after drilling

In the end I held off for six days before spraying, which seemed to be about right. I went on holiday immediately afterwards, and when I got back the field looked like the photo above. Actually it looks a complete mess as it is just full of dying plants, but when you look closer it is excellent. Let’s hope the aphids don’t spoil the party.

4) IRG silage & grain maize

I’m quite excited about this one. Next spring we will be planting some maize (corn to Americans) that will be harvested, hopefully in early October, for grain. The thing about maize is that it is not planted until April at the earliest, and sometimes May. This leaves a big window for growing a cover crop. After my visit to New Zealand I was keen to try out an Italian Ryegrass (IRG) cover crop as it has an excellent and prolific root system. I decided to include a little bit of vetch in the mix too, which increases diversity and fixes some nitrogen. But when the economics of grain maize were investigated further, they did not look so pretty. The plan was changed accordingly, and instead of grazing the IRG with sheep, I have sold it in advance to a local dairy farmer for silage.

Both the grass and the vetch have come well, apart from here the slugs ate it all...

Both the grass and the vetch have come well, apart from where the slugs ate it all…

Hopefully the silage will be cut in late april, and the maize planted in immediately behind it (no-till of course) with a starter fertiliser. If this works it will be great, as double-cropping like this keeps the land productive for twelve months a year. I’m also hoping that because the field will be killed off with glyphosate in April, the blackgrass problem that is starting to form there can be nipped in the bud.

I’ve considered this scheme as fairly perilous due to two factors: Firstly sowing grass seeds seems like it could come back to haunt us in years to come, and secondly grain maize is a pretty marginal crop in this country. It is the second smallest field on the farm though, so even if it is a disaster I may escape being fired.

5) Mob grazing & a 3 year herbal ley

Last but not least, the biggest and longest experiment we have. How can I make one field yield more like its neighbour (I’ll need to increase its productivity by 20% to get there)? A year ago I planted a legume rich herbal ley after a crop of rapeseed. It contained ryegrass, timothy, cocksfoot, chicory, white clovers, red clovers, trefoil, sainfoin, and probably a few others that I have forgotten.

Before and after

Before and after

The field is 18ha in size, and I have about 30 animals grazing it. It is chronically understocked. In about two weeks I will have completed one circuit and they will be back at the start, having been moved in to a new grazing cell every day or two for the last five months.

In the weeks after grazing all of the legumes go crazy. There must be a lot of free nitrogen being fixed here now

In the weeks after grazing all of the legumes go crazy. There must be a lot of free nitrogen being fixed here now

It has actually gone very well so far. When the cattle density is this high (nowhere near where a professional mob grazier would be) then every type of plant is eaten, and the rest is trampled. Even the really bad blackgrass patches were grazed, and as we all know, cows don’t eat blackgrass.

This was the first cell that was grazed five months ago

This was the first cell that was grazed five months ago

It’s lucky that I have not spent any money on the field, as it hasn’t produced any either (no cash anyway). The plan is to keep this ley in for three years, and then go back into normal cropping. To break even, I need to increase its yields by 3% over the following 20 years. I believe this is feasible (in fact I would hope for more), but whether it happens or not is anyones’ guess. What I am really worried about is all of the grass seed that is being shed by the plants, and what it will mean in those 20 years. Will I be cursing this experiment for the rest of my life?

Day 31

So that’s a full month of travelling for Nuffield, only a few more left.Screen Shot 2014-06-28 at 17.09.52I’ve stayed for a couple of nights with a Nuffield Scholar from 1976, Jim Halford. He might be known to some people because he invented the Conserva Pak drill, the design of which was sold to John Deere in 2007. Jim is a no-till (or zero-till as he calls it) pioneer, and now everyone in the area is using the technique he developed.

I would not say that it is minimum disturbance no-till, as the drill is made up of two tines, the first of which places fertiliser, and the second one seed. The first tine is set a bit deeper, and serves to cultivate a strip for the seed to go into, and the packing wheel means that it leaves very distinct ridges. This is seen as a benefit as the seedlings are protected from wind until they grow bigger and poke out the top. Jim had tried disc drills to begin with, but found they did not work on his soils – hence he developed the Conserva Pak. I wonder if they might work better now the soil is in better condition?

But I didn’t visit to see a drill. I came because Jim has a pretty unique (sorry mum) setup. The main farm has been in no-till for over 30 years, but in 2000 he started renting some land next door. This land had been conventionally farmed, which is to say it was cropped one year and then fallowed the next. During the fallow period it would be cultivated 4-5 times to keep the weeds under control. In 2001 Jim put it into a no-till system, where it has been ever since.

The left hand plot has had no nitrogen for 12 years

The left hand plot has had no nitrogen for 12 years

In 2002, in conjunction with the Indian Head Agricultural Research Foundation (IHARF), they put a trial site on the long term no-till land, and a few hundred metres away, another on the new land. The trial has been running ever since, in a spring wheat/canola rotation, which is standard around here. There were a few different treatments on the site, one to do with phosphate placement, and the others with varying rate of N, from 0-120kg/ha.

The first 10 years’ data has been analysed, and the long term no-till site is much, much more productive than the short term. In fact the long term produced an average of C$120 per year extra profit.

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The lines are from plots that were in no-till for differing lengths of time; hopefully the legend is self-explanatory

As the graph shows, the longer a field was in no-till, the higher yielding it became, for all levels of nitrogen fertilisation. I think it is interesting that the difference is more pronounced at the lower end, and that ties up with the observations that no-till soils have more available nitrate in them. Another nugget was the in these 10 years, 4 had average rainfall, 3 had above average, and 3 below. In the “normal” years the yields were not very far apart, whereas in extremes the long term was significantly better. Again this would be consistent with the theory that increased organic matter helps both drainage and moisture retention.

Now, the short term field was obviously coming out of about the worst type of treatment you could imagine; half the time it had no growing plants and constant soil disturbance. However, the difference in productivity between these two sites seems so massive to me that it makes me question whether there isn’t another factor at play. The two sites are not immediately adjacent, but the soils were tested and found to be effectively identical – although micro nutrients were not looked at. When I visited the Rogers Memorial Farm in Nebraska, and looked at the data from 34 years of tillage trials, there was nowhere near this level of difference between even full tillage (ploughing) and the no-till, even though less disturbance did consistently come out ahead. That is not to say that the results here are not correct, but I am not going to get excited and think that 20-30% yield increases are possible on our land just from adopting no-till. Which is a shame.

IHARF publish a booklet each year that outlines all the trials they have published results from, and it is an interesting read. Most of it is not relevant outside their local area, but a couple caught my eye. One was that they found a significant yield increase from inoculating peas with rhizobium bacteria at drilling time. I think some trials have been done in the UK on this, without such exciting results; I wonder what the difference is?

The second thing was a trial looking at seeding rate for canola in relation to row widths. We have some rapeseed this year planted in 50cm rows, as opposed to our normal 12.5cm. Both of these were drilled at the same seed rate, but we have been saying all year that maybe the wider rows should have had a lower rate, so that individual plants had more room. According to the IHARF results, this is not the case. It may be possible to reduce the rate slightly, but in general the same should be used regardless of row width. A good example of the quote I put in Day 29’s blog:

“If common sense always worked we wouldn’t need science”