Simplicity Is The Key When Starting Out
by Simon Clarke, Technical and Sales Manager for Simtech Aitchison
I’m sure few would disagree that converting to a no-till system of farming after years of moving soil around is a daunting task and finding your way through the increasing fog of advice is as difficult as the actual act of no-till farming itself. However through working with many of the early adopters of this practise over the past 12 years I have formed the opinion that keeping to a simple system is your best bet for success. You may say I am biased, as my job is working with one of the simpler tine drills on the market, but as I will layout, the facts speak for themselves.
Too much emphasis is often placed on zero soil movement, which is my view does not exist. Often a little soil disturbance is beneficial in mineralising some nutrients, eliminating the need for expensive starter fertiliser and the equipment to place it. Equally you are going to find yourself needing to drill in an extreme range of situations, from cover crops directly after harvesting, when the ground can be very hard, to potentially very wet conditions, as autumn drilling advise is now to drill quite late in the season, in the battle against blackgrass. Whilst talking about late autumn drilling it is also important to note that speed of emergence can vary according to the type of direct drill you are using. I have talked to many farmers that own both a tine and a disc type direct drill, who report that by comparison the speed of emergence can be reduced by as much as two thirds, when disc drills are used in cold wet soils.
At the other end of the spectrum, summer drilled cover crops need to go in as quickly as time and soil conditions allow, following the combine. Often drilling into large amounts of surface trash at a time when soil moisture content can be very low. Seed to soil contact is very important and “hair pinning” by disc drills is in my view unavoidable and very detrimental to germination, as the trash dries out the seed slot and prevents the seed being covered by tilth. Penetration is also an issue in these situations and getting the seed at a sensible depth needs a powerful coulter. For many years we have worked in France drilling complex cover crop mixtures of up to 13 different species, possibly containing beans and clover in the same mix. All these seeds go into the same slot at a depth determined by the largest seed in the mix, yet all the species emerge together, dispelling the theory that small seeds must be drilled very shallowly.
Another vital component to success is how good you can be at eliminating soil compaction. Investing in the right tyres is in my view as important as your drill choice, but tyres alone will not solve compaction if you are running around with several hundred horsepower on top of them. Combine harvesters vary considerably in weight between makes and ranges, so look very carefully at how light you can travel, as harvesting is the one thing you cannot delay in a wet period.
My final piece of advice is to understand what “living soil” means and study how to achieve it. We are very lucky that there is now a wealth of publications out there, from the highly academic to the down-right practical farmers who have “been there and done that” and are willing to share their knowledge with the rest of us and it does not really matter where in the world they are, because the principals of soil health are the same everywhere.