It’s that time of year. Again.
The Thriplow Farms 2015 Annual Report is now online, along with the previous 40 or so, on our website:
It’s that time of year. Again.
The Thriplow Farms 2015 Annual Report is now online, along with the previous 40 or so, on our website:
It’s about 6 weeks since drilling, and the field is looking good, with only a small amount of blackgrass. Excellent.
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%.
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:
And the heavier bit, with just the one sample:
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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some numbers that came up after the trials were done. I’ve added in our current drill for fun.
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.
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].
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.
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:
Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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):
And this is a couple of meters away in the no-till:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
Here are some of the results that I think are notable. I’ve tried to keep it slightly readable.
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?
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.