CS vs 750a Xmas update

It’s about 6 weeks since drilling, and the field is looking good, with only a small amount of blackgrass. Excellent.

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The 750a (left) / CS (right) seam, November 13

The nice people at ProCam have set up some plant population experiments for me, and have now performed two counts. At one end of the field (slightly lighter soil) there are 10 sample locations for each drill, so the results should be statistically significant. At the other, heavier, end we have just got one sample site per drill. The first set of results were interesting, but it turns out that there had been a bit of an error, and the varying drills’ row widths had not been taken into account. In a nutshell, that’s bad news for the CS and CO8, as their plant counts had been overstated by around 45%.

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The CS plots being counted, December 4th

Let’s get on to the data. Remember, all drills put seed on at the same rate, which was 225kg/ha AKA 480 seeds/m2. Here’s the lighter land bit, with 10 samples per drill:

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And the heavier bit, with just the one sample:

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Clearly, the 750a has managed quite a lot better rates of establishment than the other two. There has been slug activity, which probably explains the decreasing plant counts over the last month; the heavier section was pelleted, the lighter bit was not. The differing growth stages are interesting, but at this point, I don’t know what is “best”. Could it be the CS is the lowest disturbance, and less mineralised N means slower plant development? That’s not what a certain S.Townsend preaches, but I have no idea if he is right or not.

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33.33cm x 33.33cm

My personal feeling is that the differences in growth stages will even out by the time summer comes around. Luckily we will be measuring the yields scientifically (and hopefully significantly), and that, as always, is what matters here.

Next update in the spring.

Day 408 – Cross Slot vs 750a

[This blog post will be of no interest to anyone sane]

I don’t think my Nuffield report mentioned hardware once. It’s pretty well incidental to the bigger picture, but that is not to say we don’t all like arguing about it anyway. Way back in March 2014 I went to visit Cross Slot in NZ, and since then have…participated…in the long and tedious debates that seem to crop up every time the drill is mentioned. The main point in summary is that the drill is incredibly expensive, and its ability to create extra yield to mitigate this is, depending on your viewpoint, unproven.

I have been trying since September 2014 to get a Cross Slot on this farm, so that I could see it with my own eyes. I had pretty well given up getting anywhere, when an opportunity arose not so long ago. There are now a handful of drills floating about this country, and one was based not far away. All it took to tempt it over here was a chequebook – it seems that demos are not possible or deemed necessary by the dealer. I had never intended to perform a trial, but it seemed like a good opportunity to try and get something done, and luckily John Deere stepped up at very short notice to send one of their machines. I had really wanted to get a Weaving GD as well, but that also proved impossible.

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Anyway, 408 days after I first tried, a Cross Slot finally turned up at the farm. We had a few fields of wheat left to drill: mainly second wheats, but also a large field that had been peas. One second wheat field was split in half, and drilled with both our normal Horsch CO8 with narrow points, and the other half with CS. The pea field was drilled mainly with the Horsch, but one 8.8ha gap was left in the middle, which was the right size to allow two drills to put in a tonne of seed each, side-by-side. Let battle commence.

The field

At least half our farm is super easy working light/medium soil. Any drill will produce good results. The trial field is however just about our heaviest. It is classified as clay (54% clay, 30% silt, 16% sand), but is relatively easy working because there is so much calcium in there from the chalk subsoil (87.6% Ca vs 3.7% Mg). There was plenty of moisture in the soil, but still just dry enough to drill. Even so, a Horsch prototype single disc direct drill could not actually get in deeper than about 10mm when we tried a few weeks previously. As far as this farm is concerned, if a drill works here, it will probably work anywhere else.

The Cross Slot

This was a 5m drill, with 21 openers, giving a 238mm row spacing. What is really incredible is the weight in such a physically small looking drill. 12t empty is almost unbelievable, but is accomplished by filling the frame with tiny bits of steel. This gives a theoretical pressure per opener of 571kg. Massive. There was a 280hp Claas tractor on the front.

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The John Deere

The elder statesman of direct drills. Well proven, but still flawed. And seemingly unloved, until this year at least, by its parents. The opening disc is much smaller than the Cross Slot, and the drill itself is much lighter, at 6.3-6.8t depending on how much ballast is added. This particular machine had none at all, which gives a theoretical pressure per opener of 175kg at a row spacing of 167mm. The standard closing wheels are often changed by owners, and here we had one side with originals, and one side with Guttlers. The tractor was a 195hp John Deere.

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Doing the job

As it happening, the timing was totally perfect and both drills started off within minutes of each other. With only a tonne of seed to do each they wouldn’t be around for too long either.

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Both machines were already set up for drilling wheat at around 30-40mm deep. The following are some of my thoughts from what I saw.

Left CS, right 750a. This is fairly subjective, but I would say there is more disturbance with the 750a. HOWEVER i think this is due to there being 50% more openers per meter with the 750a, I would rate the disturbance per opener as being very similar
Left CS, right 750a. This is fairly subjective, but I would say there is more disturbance with the 750a. HOWEVER I think this is due to there being 50% more openers per meter with the 750a, I would rate the disturbance per opener as being similar
This is seed placement from the John Deere, which was nicely consistent. It seemed to be penetrating with no trouble at all, and with no ballast. I was very surprised at this after the Horsch DD could not get in at all with 25% more weight per opener. Both types of closing wheel were doing a decent job, but the Guttlers did seem a little better perhaps
This is seed placement from the John Deere, which was nicely consistent. It seemed to be penetrating with no trouble at all, with no ballast. I was very surprised at this after the Horsch DD could not get in at all with 25% more weight per opener. Both types of closing wheel were doing a decent job, but the Guttlers did seem a little better perhaps

The CS also placed the seed well, but I was slightly shocked that at one end of the field which required every gram of the 12t to get in. You can see in the video below that there was no weight at all going through the drill’s wheels whilst it was in work.

I find this very worrying given that the conditions were soft. In a dry autumn I really doubt that no-till would be possible on these heavier fields with this drill.

Here are a couple of slo-mo videos of the drills working. Obviously the CS one I took in the wheat stubble from the first field it drilled. There looks to be a lot more soil throw from the 750a, but it’s much looser in pea stubble compared to wheat, so not a fair comparison. I should have got a video of the CS in the peas but ran out of time.

The details

Here are some numbers that came up after the trials were done. I’ve added in our current drill for fun.

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And now for some financials. The purchase price for the CS is a bit of an estimate based on a few things, one of which is a quote I have for a NZ made machine which came in at £175,000 for a 6m. Running costs are averaged out from multiple owners I have spoken to for both machines. I am assuming 1,000ha of drilling per year, for 10 years. To begin with I was going to try and estimate depreciation and use that cost, but then I started thinking about the extra finance and opportunity costs involved in buying more expensive machinery, and decided it was too complicated for a simple soul like me. So I have just gone with dividing the initial cost over the full term.

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So we are looking at a difference between the 750a and CS of around £20/ha, otherwise known as about 2% wheat yield increase at current prices. [BUT very importantly, don’t forget that these are very different machines in terms of output, so to match up here would require a hugely more expensive CS setup].

What next?

I’m not sure how scientific this will get. It would be good to take plant and head counts as the year goes on. Obviously the real result, and the only one that matters here, is yield. I have some ideas on how to measure this accurately, but it will depend on some people being generous with their time and machinery. In the meantime all I can do is wait and see what the emergence looks like.

Conclusions(?)

Both drills put the seed in the ground (just) and covered it with soil. I can’t see any reason at this point in time why one will give a better result than the other. I am struggling to see why for me, on this farm, at this time, there would be a benefit to spending more money to get a drill with a lower workrate that is more expensive to run. CS has a big potential benefit in that it can reduce hair pinning compared to a 750a when going in to cereal straw stubbles. For me this is not relevant as I would keep a tine drill for those jobs (cover crops and OSR mainly). CS also has incredible vertical travel on the openers (14″ IIRC), but that is about 12″ more than exists on our fields. The same goes for durability; CS has shown it can handle super rocky conditions, but then we do not have those. We farm very soft land, and some people have put tens of thousands of hectares through their 750as without much trouble (unlike this guy!).

Maybe though we will see what CS says we might, and get a 13-23% yield increase:

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Teaser

The travelling is done, and now so is the writing. At some point in the near future my report will be published – here’s the executive summary:

After a few years of working on our family farm, I noticed that some fields performed significantly better than their neighbours, even though the soil types were very similar. The histories of these fields were very different, with the better performing ones having been more recently used for growing grass and grazing livestock. In our case, we found that even after 25 years there could be as much as a 25% increase in yields in fields that had been more recently in pasture. Many farmers realise that these areas always grow the best crops, but there is a reluctance to understand why, or to try and harness those characteristics to improve the whole farm.

With my study I aimed to find out how to measure what makes some fields better than others, and then find out the best way to make these changes in an economic way, and in a sensible time frame. To do this I travelled to New Zealand, the USA, Canada, Denmark, Australia, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil to look at no-till, cover and companion cropping, and livestock integration. I visited farmers which had decades of soil improvement experience and claimed they could increase organic matter levels by 1% every year, as well as researchers who said this was not possible.

I found that although varying climates in different countries meant the effects happened faster or slower, many modern farming methods are contributing to a decrease in productivity and Soil Health. Cultivations carried out by heavy machinery are causing structural damage and organic matter loss at the same time. Many farms in the first world have specialised towards crop-only production, and away from integrated livestock systems. This is causing Soil Health in general to be reduced as plant diversity is diminished, and the lack of perennial pastures means soil organic matter levels are significantly below their potential. The knock-on effect from impaired Soil Health is increased reliance on fertilisers as plants cannot form symbiotic relationships with microorganisms which help them access nutrients. In addition, this lack of soil fauna also allows plant pathogens to become dominant and cause yield-robbing diseases.

Some of the solutions to these problems are easy, such as changing machinery to allow farming with less soil disturbance, whereas altering crop rotations and growing cover crops may require some investment in the future by possibly sacrificing short term profitability. The most valuable change, integrating livestock, will be the hardest to accomplish in scale. Many have moved away from this type of farming in the last century for economic and lifestyle reasons, but it is only now that we are seeing what we have lost in the process.

Weaving GD

It’s not about the machinery. But we still want a drill that will do the right job; low soil disturbance is critical, as is the ability to work in non-perfect conditions. We also like contour following, fertiliser placement and being able to cut through a lot of residue. From a non-agronomic viewpoint, build quality, simplicity and price are also important.

I’ve seen quite a few no-till drills working, and they are always a bit underwhelming. Not bad, just not quite doing what I would like. This is the first time I’ve come away more optimistic than when I arrived. Is it the answer? Maybe.

It occurs to me that I never took a plain picture of the opener, which was very stupid. However, you can see it rather well in this video.

It has two discs, one bigger than the other, tilted over a very long way. The bottom disc in significantly bigger, and it does the trash cutting. The top disc is what actually lifts the soil up and out of the way.

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There are only two adjustments possible. One is the depth, set by the rubber wheel at the back, which is adjusted with the pin shown on the left. The other is hydraulic down pressure, set on a gauge at the front. One unusual feature I hadn’t anticipated was how the whole disc assembly can swivel from side to side, you can see the pivot on the right.

The first bit of work I saw was drilling a bit of HLS cover into a grassy strip. It was clear that there was absolutely no problem with trash clearance. It was fairly challenging conditions, because the seed was going in quite shallow, but across the 3m width was thick grass cover in parts, and bare crumbly soil in others. There was a little bit of seed left on top, but not much.

The drill had stopped at this point, which is why there was so much seed on the ground. You can see on the right how well the residues have been cut, and the slot closed.
The drill had stopped at this point, which is why there was so much seed on the ground. You can see on the right how well the residues have been cut, and the slot closed.

There were two things that impressed me particularly. One was the level of disturbance. I would be fairly confident in saying this drill is significantly lower disturbance than any I’ve seen before, 750a, Cross Slot etc etc. But what makes it good is the severe angle of the discs. This seems to mean that the slot can be closed much more easily, as it doesn’t exist in the conventional sense, as with a 750a or a tine drill. Instead, the soil is already on top of the seed, it just needs to be pushed down a bit. Thus even when the ground is sticky and the slot does not close fully, it’s not a problem as the seed is still underground, and firmed in.

This was Durum wheat planted 4 days ago. The field had very thick sprayed off black grass patches where the soil was very sticky. Here the slots weren't fully closed, but the seed was still completely covered, and had already started germinating
This was Durum wheat planted 4 days ago. The field had very thick sprayed off black grass patches where the soil was very sticky. Here the slots weren’t fully closed, but the seed was still completely covered, and had already started germinating

The effect seems to be broadly similar to what the Cross Slot claims is very important. Unlike the Cross Slot, I’m not sure if hair-pinning will be a problem. Dwayne Beck says that having two different sized discs makes residue cutting much more effective, but I don’t know if that is relevant in this case. There is 100mm of up and down coulter travel, which is not masses, but should easily be sufficient for our conditions. It’s certainly better than our current drill, which has 0mm.

This is the field drilled with Durum wheat. In the areas where the is no black grass, the soil was nice and friable. So much so that it was impossible to see where the drill had been, I had to dig around with a knife until I found some seeds
This is the field drilled with Durum wheat. In the areas where the is no black grass, the soil was nice and friable. So much so that it was impossible to see where the drill had been, I had to dig around with a knife until I found some seeds

One last key point is again due to how the discs are angled. They run with a bit of rake, which means they dig themselves in to the ground as they are pulled forward. They claim this means it needs half the down pressure compared to a conventional disc drill. An added benefit is that the weight comes off the bearings, and increases their life.

It really is very impressive, and is seems to be quite a leap on from what we have now. I might try and see it working somewhere else later in the week, and then this autumn we will have to get a demo here. I’m looking forward to it.

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.

Grass roots campaign

Back when I went to NZ for my first Nuffield trip, I wrote this in my summing up blog post:

I think I have really seen the value of plain old grass. Perhaps the Kiwis could use a refresh in their thinking as well, and start using a bit more diversity, but when it comes to soil quality and improvement, roots are king. And nothing does roots like grass.

That inspired me to plant some Italian Ryegrass as a cover crop before maize. Subsequently it transformed from a cover crop to a cash crop – it has been sold to a local dairy farmer as silage, and will be cut in a month or so. But I thought it was time to take a look at what the effect has been. And whilst I’m at it, there are a few more photos of other things that have been going on since I’ve been back from Brazil.

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Last harvest was so early that this IRG got planted in mid-to-late July. It was no-tilled, which was a real benefit as we were in a very dry period at the time but it still germinated. The biggest problem with this trial has always been the potential for the IRG to become a weed in the future. It’s still a worry.
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In the middle of the field I switched off the drill for 10m and left this little blank area to act as a control.
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On the left is a slice taken from the bare soil, on the right from a meter away in the crop. It’s obvious how many more roots are on the right; there’s a real ripping sound when you pull it apart. Theory has it that these roots are conditioning the soil structure, and when they die, they will become Soil Organic Matter. By taking the leaves off as silage we will lose some nutrients, but I am hoping there is a net gain.
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The soil surface between the rows of grass (on the right) has an incredible amount of root mass just under the old wheat straw. I’ve actually never seen anything like it, it must be soaking up a lot of nutrients. In the control patch it is just bare soil under the straw, as expected.
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Time for a different type of grass. This is a field of rapeseed, which has been quite badly eaten by pigeons. But the interesting bit is between the rape plants. It’s a weed called blackgrass, which we aren’t too overcome with, but this field has a terrible patch. It’s taken three chemicals to kill it off, but eventually it looks to have worked well. Now it’s forming a great moisture retaining mulch; I’m going to call it an intentional companion crop.
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When I took these photos I had only just been in the IRG field, so it made me wonder if the blackgrass had a similar effect on the soil. Luckily this patch is very well defined, so you can go from thick weeds to no weeds in a meter. On the left here is from the blackgrass patch, on the right is the clean bit. The result is very similar to the IRG field, so the companion cropping trial could be deemed a success…
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More grass: Black Oats (and vetch, which is very hard to find). This was always going to be marginal, as they were scheduled to be planted in late October/early November after sugar beet. Unfortunately it went in around a month after that, and never really got going. The idea was to suppress some blackgrass and to improve soil structure after it had been absolutely hammered by the sugar beet harvesting. We killed it off last week (same day these photos were taken) ready for planting spring barley. Was it a waste of money? I suspect so.
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We’ve had this drill for 13 years or so, this is the first time it has been pulled by a wheeled tractor. Although this one is still a lot of machine, it’s lighter, more comfortable, more versatile and cheaper to run than our Challenger. It may be the end of tracked vehicles on this farm.
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I had to stop drilling peas and get out to take a photo when I saw this. It was wheat last year, then a cover crop which was grazed before Christmas. The greeny-yellow strip is where I missed a bit when planting the cover crop, so it has been bare since the summer. As you can clearly see, it is stuffed full of blackgrass, compared to next door which has almost none. The big question will be, is this a good thing or not? One school of thought is that it’s better to have the weeds germinate so they can be killed prior to planting the spring crop. I’ll have to keep an eye on it over the growing season to see which bit, if any, has the higher weed population
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That’s it for grasses. We are running a sugar beet establishment trial this year, helped out by BBRO. Most of the field is ploughed, but some has been strip-tilled (with a StripCat, excellent machine) and some no-tilled. All was drilled with a loaned Vaderstad Tempo, which had a few teething problems. It did an OK job on the no-till, the main problem being that the closing wheels were designed for working in loose cultivated soil, and so did not always cover the seed properly. This would be simple to fix with some spiked wheels.
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This is the junction of no-till vs plough. There should be no doubt as to which one will retain moisture better in the summer, and this is light land that dries out easily. But that is only one factor, so who knows what the final result will be?

Day 69(ish) – Some data & final thoughts

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This is roughly speaking where I’ve travelled. It’s a little abbreviated in Brazil since that got too complicated to map easily. My time in South America is almost up, but there are a few more things to say, and random pictures to insert.

This lunch on my first visit was exceptional. Why don't we cook beef ribs?
This lunch on my first visit was exceptional. Why don’t we cook beef ribs?

I met a guy from Embrapa yesterday who is running a program near Brasilia where they are comparing conventional and Organic dairy grazing systems. It’s only been going for three years, and I haven’t seen the data (he will email it to me apparently), but they are finding hugely more efficient fertiliser use under Organic management. At the start of the trial both treatments were given the same amount of NPK fertilisers. In the conventional system these came from urea, triple super phosphate and potassium chloride. The Organic sources were animal manures and soft rock phosphate.

"Old town" Montevideo, Uruguay
“Old town” Montevideo, Uruguay

In each of the three years there has been a 20-30% yield penalty (measured by tonnes of dry matter produced per hectare) with the Organic management. However, the critical point is that every year the conventional fertiliser must be reapplied in the same amounts, whereas the Organic field is maintaining its yields with only what was put on at the beginning of the trial. How long will that go on for? Who knows, but already after three years it’s a very interesting result. Whether it could be more profitable to grow crops like this, even without an Organic premium, I couldn’t say; it’s going to depend a lot on the value of the land you’re farming. But it does make you wonder how much of the artificial fertiliser we apply is just being wasted.

Do you ever get the feeling you're missing something?
Do you ever get the feeling you’re missing something?

At a previous Embrapa meeting I was given some scientific papers to take home, and have only just had a chance to read them. One is particularly worthwhile, it’s called “Integrated crop-livestock system in Brazil: Toward a sustainable production system”. The data comes from a 16 year experiment comparing these treatments,

  • CSConventional System using disc cultivation, growing soybeans with a winter cover crop
  • NTSNo-Till System, growing a soya and maize rotation with winter cover crops
  • ICLSIntegrated Crop-Livestock System growing two years of soya & cover crop and two years of pasture
  • PPPermanent Pasture
Lack of water isn't normally a problem in Brazil (lack of power to move it can be though)
Lack of water isn’t normally a problem in Brazil (lack of power to move it can be though)

Here are some of the results that I think are notable. I’ve tried to keep it slightly readable.

  • “the ICLS system treatment yielded soybean production that was greater than or equal to that of CS and NTS. This higher efficiency of ICLS system may be related to availability of P in organic form” – this tallies with the experimental results found by Embrapa Cerrados
  • “Systems with livestock grazing had significantly greater MWD [this is a measure of how stable the physical soil structure is] compared to other systems (ICLS: 4.12mm, PP: 4.93mm, CS: 2.19mm, NTS: 3.18mm) … Ultimately, soils with greater aggregation characteristics are considered of better quality than similar soils with weaker aggregation, mainly because TOC [Total Organic Carbon] becomes physically protected in stable aggregates.” – see the famous Slake Test
  • “Concentration of TOC, TOC storage, and POC stock were increased under grazing by livestock at the following order: CS<NTS<ICLS<PP … The labile fraction of organic matter was also greater in ICLS and PP, than in NTS indicating greater energy flux in the soil system. Greater SOM lability was attributed to the presence of the forage, which adds a greater amount of organic matter to the soil than cropping alone. Moreover, there is a continuous exudation of substances from grass roots to the soil during growth which is stimulated during grazing.”Not very surprising. But it must be noted that of all the systems, it was the NTS which actually lost the most carbon overall. CS was stable, and the other two increased.
  • Total microbial activity was greater in the order you would expect, PP>ICLS>NTS>CS – I’m paraphrasing here a bit.
  • “Density and taxonomic richness of the invertebrate macrofauna [i.e. worms, beetles etc] community in soil differed among management systems. Lowest values were observed in CS, while ICLS was equivalent to that of NTS and PP and greater than that of CS … Soil macroinvertebrates perform numerous essential functions, including decomposition, nutrient cycling, SOM mineralisation, soil-structure modification, atmospheric-composition regulation, and biological control of pests and diseases.”I think it’s fairly obvious by this point what direction this paper is heading in…
  • Hold on, this is a long one: “Weed community analysis showed that areas without pasture and grazing generally accumulated more weed mass than areas that were periodically or continuously grazed. The area of soil covered by weeds was 87% greater in CS compared to the average of the other treatments. Generally, areas that were continuously or periodically grazed by livestock had fewer weeds than areas where only grain crops were grown. Livestock grazing also affected seed germination: weed seedlings from treatments that included grazing took longer to germinate and emerge from from the soil surface. Regardless of the presence or absence of tillage, crop-only systems exhibited larger areas of soil covered by weeds.” – Phew. I’ve never actually seen this information in a scientific context, and the figure they come up with (87%) is huge. Very interesting.
  • “Occurence of Rotylenchulus reniformis [a parasitic nematode pest] differed significantly among management systems, with a much larger population in CS [1500x more than the next highest]”
  • “In years with ample rainfall, soybean production was equal in the three grain-production systems. In years with poor rainfall distribution, with water deficits, ICLS and NTS exhibited smaller productivity losses compared to CS. In 2010/11, for example, CS yielded only 60% of crop production in other systems.” – No big shock here, there’s a reason all the really dry places in the world have gone to no-till. Although it’s amazing they get droughts here when it rains perhaps 1500mm in the growing season. In the tropical heat it doesn’t take long for it all to evaporate.
I'm not usually a big fan of visiting churches, but these two in Brasilia are easily the best I've ever seen
I’m not usually a big fan of visiting churches, but these two in Brasilia are easily the best I’ve ever seen

I’ve found this to be a useful paper, and to me it suggests that the oft-heard fear that having animals in a system is a drain on nutrients/soil fertility is not just unfounded, but actively wrong. Now who wants to lay some water pipe?

I seem to remember there was a cat photo in the last Australia blog too?
I seem to remember there was a cat photo in the final Australia blog too?

It’s certainly been an interesting trip, but I think I’ve run out of steam. The problem is that I’ve seen enough of the details – just look at how different the first blog posts from NZ are – and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find novel concepts. Particularly here in South America, the diversity in farming methodologies seems very limited, and largely defined by what area/climate you happen to be in. There could be two explanations for this: lack of imagination, or perhaps the farmers are more switched on to the research, and unlike back at home, they are all doing the “right” things already. It’s difficult (impossible) to tell, but I haven’t found the Gabe Brown/Coin Seis sort of guy who is trying something totally different… Well I do actually know one, the problem was that he refused to let me visit! The others are probably hiding somewhere not telling anyone about it. That’s a job for a future traveller.

It’s been great fun, but this may be the last Nuffield post. Ciao.

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Day 68 – Unrealised potential & realised potential

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One thing that I've noticed is that the plant spacing in Brazil does not seem to be very good. I've had a look at a couple of scientific papers on the subject, and there isn't a definitive answer, but some trials do find quite significant yield losses from poor spacing within the row. I do wonder whether this is an area with some room for improvement, and it's fairly low-hanging fruit.
One thing that I’ve noticed is that the plant spacing in Brazil does not seem to be very good. I’ve had a look at a couple of scientific papers on the subject, and there isn’t a definitive answer, but some trials do find quite significant yield losses from poor spacing within the row. I do wonder whether this is an area with some room for improvement, and it’s fairly low-hanging fruit. In one field I saw four plants on top of each other but I didn’t want to seem rude by photographing it on front of the farmer. No wonder I’m renowned for my diplomacy. 
My car is normally about this dirty, the difference being our mud is a boring browny/grey colour. I am obviously a lot less cool than this guy.
My car is quite often looks a bit like this, the difference being our mud is a boring browny/grey colour. I am obviously a lot less cool than this guy.
In the afternoon we visited another guy farming the usual suspects. What made it interesting was that he had a 50% pasture system, and his neighbour was entirely cropping. I like this sort of setup as you can jump over the fence and see if anything looks different. Here we have three slices of soil taken from very near each other. On the left is from the neighbour's farm (no-till & cover crops, but no grazing). In the middle was the farm I visited (no-till, same crops, but 50% pasture). On the right was from permanent grass on the roadside. It's a very unscientific test, but the samples did follow the pattern I expected. The left hand ample was the lightest of all, which is a basic indicator of lower SOM levels. It also did not crumble into as many pieces, and had more horizontal fracturing, maybe indicating a bit of compaction? The sample on the right was noticeably darker, and much more crumbly. The middle sample was in between the others (literally and figuratively!). What does this tell us? Possibly nothing at all, but it's interesting to see a difference in the soil that, maybe, was caused by a change in management.
In the afternoon we visited another guy farming the usual suspects. What made it interesting was that he had a 50% pasture system, and his neighbour was entirely cropping. I like this sort of setup as you can jump over the fence and see if anything looks different. Here we have three slices of soil taken from very near each other. On the left is from the neighbour’s farm (no-till & cover crops, but no grazing). In the middle was the farm I visited (no-till, same crops, but 50% pasture). On the right was from permanent grass on the roadside. It’s a very unscientific test, but the samples did follow the expected pattern. The left hand sample was the lightest of all, which is a basic indicator of lower SOM levels. It also did not crumble into as many pieces, and had more horizontal fracturing, maybe indicating a bit of compaction? The sample on the right was noticeably darker, and much more crumbly. The middle sample was in between the others (literally and figuratively!). What does this tell us? Possibly nothing at all, but it’s interesting to see a difference in the soil that, maybe, was caused by a change in management.