Featured Farmer – Alex Shutes

Progressive Farmer – Alex Shutes

I’m Alex Shutes – @Shutesy on The Farming Forum, 28 years old, a graduate from Harper Adams University in 2012 and now a farm manager on a 200ha all arable farm in Essex.

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We grow Oilseed Rape, Wheat, W Barley, S Barley and S Beans on a 7 year rotation but with the mindset of not being afraid to chop and change depending on crop prices, the weather or for any other reason that requires a change in plans.

Our 1st wheats are grown as a low pesticide biscuit wheat destined for Heinz to produce baby food products, our 2nd wheat’s are feed, both our winter and spring barleys were grown for malting although this coming 16/17 season we have switched our winter barley to Volume hybrid barley grown for feed. Our spring beans are grown aiming for human consumption spec. The rotation has been lengthened from a predominantly Wheat – Wheat – OSR rotation on some of the farm with some barley here and there to this longer 7 year rotation to try and get a range of crops of different plant species growing successfully across the whole farm acreage each year to help both with soil and crop health and as part of a weed control strategy.

On this farm our soils vary considerably from light sandy loams, very gravelly sandy clay loams, clay loams through to heavy Essex clays.

Our previous establishment system was to plough and furrow press, powerharrow (sometimes twice), tine drill and then roll. It was quite labour intensive and used a considerable amount of fuel and wearing metal. However it was a fairly reliable system that could continue to work (to a point) in wet years and across all of our soil types we have here. However circumstances on the farm meant we had to look to get the farm into a system where 1 man can do the majority of the establishment work as well as crop spraying and fertiliser applications as opposed to the 2 man system as described above. This while also trying to reduce establishment costs at a time when crop prices are at the lower end of the scale but with a longer term view of improving the soil health across the farm and continuing to maintain or hopefully improve yields.

I have been interested in one pass strip tillage type systems, that begun to emerge in the UK from the likes of Claydon and Mzuri and lately Sumo amongst others, since I was at university. I could see the benefits it could bring to an arable or a mixed farm both from a cost saving point of view and the potential to be part of an overall system to help improve soils on a farm over time. I didn’t feel that our farm and soils were ready for a full no-till system and I felt that a min-till system wouldn’t help improve our soils or reduce our establishment costs enough to make it worthwhile so I felt strip-till was the best route for our farm at the time.

So in a move to a new and completely different establishment system for us we bought a 3m Sumo DTS drill in the summer of 2015. The initial purchase price of the drill was a big cost for us but we needed a new drill anyway as our old Weaving tine drill was starting to show its age a bit. Whether we had bought a tine drill again, a combi drill, a cultivator type drill such as a Rapid or a full no-till drill, most would have cost us £25k-£40k so price wasn’t as big a factor as getting the right drill for what we wanted to do. The DTS capability to drill into any type of seedbed was very useful for us as we are required to plough previous crop residues before planting our low pesticide 1st wheats. All other crops are sown directly into stubble or an overwintered cover crop. Sumo’s reputation as a British manufacturer making well built, high quality machinery was also another factor for us.

In the first summer with the drill we drilled all our OSR plus some cover crops on land that was going into spring cropping in the spring of 2016. We found quite quickly that the DTS wasn’t all too keen on the large amounts of straw that were being seen after harvest 2015 especially when drilling shortly after the combine had been through the field as it didn’t take much for the drill to block up. The issue was improved by cutting our stubbles shorter and by the time we came to autumn drilling the stubbles had all become brittle and were no longer really a problem. Sumo didn’t ignore the problems we were having though and provided us with great backup from the initial setup of the drill when we bought it, to various modifications that have improved the performance of the drill remarkably in trashy conditions so much so that now into Autumn 2016 drilling the drill hasn’t blocked once since!

When purchasing the drill we didn’t buy a straw rake at the same time as we thought we would see how we would get on for a year without one. The majority of the time we didn’t have too much of an issue but I have since found that trash flow through the drill is better when using it on raked stubbles. The main reason for buying a straw rake for us is that our current combine doesn’t have a chaff spreader so unfortunately we found that thick rows of chaff and short straw every 18ft in fields direct drilled into stubble have caused issues with greater amount of N lock-up, a greater number of slugs and very wet soil underneath the chaff that smeared whereas other parts of the field with no chaff on had a nice tilth, therefore we ended up with thinner crop on those thin strips where the combine had been.


Drilling setup (Claas Arion 630 and Sumo DTS3)

So we have now bought a 6m Weaving stubble rake with the view that it should spread straw and chaff about more evenly to solve the above problem, kill a few slugs and destroy some slug eggs, germinate weeds and volunteers, start the breaking down process of previous crop residue and let air into the top of the soil.

I haven’t seen any instantly visible changes in our soil health but have seen a few examples that we are heading in the right direction. A good example would be in some of our heavy land fields, that often would plough up in slabs and take a lot of power-harrowing to break into a cloddy seedbed in a dry year or would be a smeary mess in a wet year, were drilled in 1 pass into a nice tilth in the top 2 inches saving considerable amounts of time and money. I have also found that fields that have been direct drilled allow us to get back on the land much sooner when spraying or fertilising than we can with our ploughed fields which can be very beneficial when spray days can often be at a premium!


Spring beans into mixed species cover crop

I have seen a saving of roughly £60ha in establishment costs compared to our previous method of establishment, more accurate figures will be obtainable when we have to change more metal on the DTS than just the ripper leg. Fuel usage is between 11-12l/ha over the majority of our fields which is half what we use just by ploughing alone.

Having done considerable research into cover cropping we have begun using cover crop mixes before spring beans and spring barley in our rotation. This year I’m using a legume free mix before spring beans and a grass species free mix before spring barley. I am still very much experimenting, getting cover cropping and spring drilling right on heavy land is not easy at all but you don’t learn anything if you don’t try things on your own farm. Direct drilling in the spring is also very different to our previous system, I have found a lot more patience is required in difficult springs such as this spring just gone. I have used our stubble rake before this summer’s cover crops were drilled and will use it again this coming spring when the cover crop has been killed off in the winter to get air and sun into the top of the soil, spread residues about and kill any slugs that I can.


Drilling 2nd wheat 6/10/16

Results from harvest 2016 were quite promising overall for our first year in the system with just slightly less yield in most of our crops compared to the exceptional harvest last year. We had 1st wheats established with both our drills into ploughed land and there was no real difference in yield, quality or blackgrass levels between the two. We also had some 2nd wheat land ploughed as a comparison between that and direct drilled land and again very little difference in yields between the 2 systems. Our OSR and W Barley yields weren’t great but were very similar to other farms in the local area so the different establishment method wasn’t the cause of any yield drops it was just the weather across the growing season. Our S Beans yielded
better than previous years crop planted into ploughed land but this being only the 2nd year of growing them we need a few more years yet to start getting some average yield data. Our S Barley was the biggest disappointment and where I feel we have the most to learn about this new system. Heavy land in a wet spring plus high slug pressure made it clear that direct drilling in the spring is very different to direct drilling in the autumn.


Wheat seed in tilled strip approx 35mm deep

In the future I would like to look at introducing some more organic matter to our soils in the form of compost, manure or biosolids whilst still chopping all our straw and using cover crops as I feel this will drive our soil health on at a greater rate than cover cropping alone. I will also continue to try different crops and varieties to see what can work for us on this farm. As mentioned above we have moved to hybrid winter barley and we are also trying some Belepi wheat to see what effect these can have as part of a blackgrass control strategy. I am also trying to think what we could grow instead of OSR in the coming years if CSFB, slug and pigeon pressures get even worse! Ideas so far include Soya and Sunflowers so there could be some interesting times ahead!