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.


Day 30

Screen Shot 2014-06-27 at 10.02.15

A last minute logistics change meant an early start this morning so that I could get to Chris Thorson’s farm near Holdfast by early afternoon. He farms with his Dad and brother, over an area of 6800ac. The main crops are here are canola, wheat and linseed, but Chris also grows green peas fairly similar to the ones we farm.

I always thought canola and oilseed rape were the same thing, but it turns out that for once I was wrong. Canola was developed from rape in the ’70s, and is lower in glucosinolates and erucic acid – I think we call it 00 rapeseed in the UK.IMG_3227The big problem they have here at the moment is too WET. Every field has standing water in it, and some of the roads are impassable. Chris had been trying to get some spraying done in the morning, but had to pull the sprayer out with a Quadtrak; after this he gave up for the day. The soil was so saturated that even on the dry sections I could hear water squelching under the surface when I walked around.

Another plan had been to drill hemp in the afternoon, but unsurprisingly it was too wet for that as well. He hasn’t grown hemp before, but thinks it could be a lucrative crop in the future. They’ve grown quite a few exotics over the years, like coriander, camelina and caraway. Caraway was the most profitable crop they ever grew, but there was one problem. After harvest the price dropped and dropped, so they decided to wait it out. Eventually it rebounded, but by then it had spent quite a long time in their storage bin: 10 years!

Horse tail

Horse tail

Some of the neighbour’s fields were infested with a weed called Horse Tail, which I’ve not come across before. It’s a living fossil, with a different physiology to normal plants. Glyphosate does not have any effect at all, and nothing else is very effective either. If you chop it up then every piece will form a new plant. I’ve tried to make sure none stuck to my shoes.

Pillar Laser openers

Pillar Laser openers

The main reason I came to visit this farm was to see some machinery. A Canadian company called Pillar make a drill opener that they call the Laser, and the claim is that it combines the best bits between a tine (or hoe) and a disc unit. It is a pretty simple concept with few moving parts and no gizmos.

The opener is made up of a double angle disc – that means it is tilted on both the horizontal and the vertical plane. All disc drills are angled horizontally, that is how the move soil out of the way to place the seed. The benefit to having it angled vertically is that it digs in by itself, and much less weight is needed to get the machine to work in hard ground. It also means that the discs self-sharpens a bit, and therefore lasts longer. On one side of the disc is a rubber wheel. This does not actually go on the ground like on a John Deere single disc opener, it is just for cleaning dirt of the outside of the disc, and making sure it doesn’t get thrown too far. On the other side of the disc is what makes the Laser different. There is a cast iron wing that sticks out a little bit from the disc’s shadow. In the back of the wing is a hole where the seed comes out.


Seed comes out of the hole at the back of the hoe’s wing. Fertiliser drops down the gap between the disc and the hoe

The end result is that the disc cuts a deep furrow, and fertiliser is placed at the bottom of this, in the same place that seed would be with a conventional disc drill. There will be some hairpinning here, but that’s of no consequence for the fertiliser. The seed is then placed on a little ledge that has been formed by the wing, and is clear of any residue. Behind this is a rubber packer wheel, which also sets the depth.


So in theory, it accomplishes fertiliser and seed separation, no hairpinning, and relatively little disturbance. There is a guy in the UK with one, and I need to try and visit him in the autumn to see it in action. Pillar say that they are developing a lower disturbance hoe that would effectively turn it into a normal single disc drill (like the Bourgault 3710) when no fertiliser placement was needed. Could this maybe make it the ideal all round drill?

I wonder how well it would work as a single disc because there is no real slot closing mechanism, nor is there a seed-fiming wheel. It would also be difficult/impossible to drill deeper than about 5omm with the hoe section – the disc does go deeper however. I don’t think it is the answer (nothing ever will be), but it’s interesting and worthy of further investigation.


There won’t be much field work here for a while longer, it’s hammering down again! Sooner them than us…