Making A Smooth Change To No-Till

Think “soil quality” rather than “new drill” when planning your change to zero-tilling.

Min till and no till are quickly becoming part of everyday agriculture. Whether used to increase soil health and the productivity of soils, or as part of a Black Grass strategy, or both, we are seeing this type of tillage being accepted as a bona fide method of farming. And, where it is done correctly the rewards can be a healthier soil and a lower input growing system. However, a word of caution needs to be put into the tillage conversation as many farmers are rushing to the machinery depot to pick up the new drill.

That word of caution should be ‘air’. A soil without air is a soil that will not sustain a healthy growing crop to a profitable yield. The air allows moisture to percolate into the root zone. It allows roots to grow in-between soil particles and allows gaseous exchange. We need air to supply the Nitrogen that is available from the atmosphere, and we need air spaces to allow CO2 to escape from the soil so that it may enter the stoma on the leaves.

Why do you think most stoma are on the bottom of the leaf? If a farmer on a heavier soil starts reduced tillage with no soil life, including bacteria, fungi, algae together with earthworms, who are the main workers of the soil, there is a good chance that growth and yields will drop, sometimes significantly. At a farmer meeting recently when no-till farmers were asked ‘how many farmers saw a yield drop’ after starting no-till, around half of them raised their hand. This wouldn’t happen if the health of the soil was examined and worked on before the new drill arrived.

Compost application, cover crops (with the right species), fertiliser and chemical control are all contributing factors to soil health and need close examination before setting out on this journey. I often hear the phrase, ‘Cover crops are a waste of time’ but then on farms that use them, I hear, ‘We saw a difference after the first crop’. When on farm the first question I am asked is ‘Where do I start?’ The answer will never be ‘Buy a new drill’. We need to look at soil type and then decide what can be done to make it suitable to use a no-till farming system. If you are lucky enough to have an open, aerated soil with a good structure then off you can go.

If, on the other hand, you have a heavier soil that is more clay, then we really have to work out how we can increase the Organic Matter content so that the soil can breathe, and breathe is the correct word, as the soil is a living entity that requires air (oxygen) to operate at peak efficiency. A soil that is lacking air will rely on high inputs of fertilisers and agrochemicals. By far the best way to achieve this goal would be to obtain hundreds of tonnes of organic matter, compost them correctly and then apply to the soil. Anybody who has listened to Simon Cowell will know that this works, and perhaps it may be the start of a journey for you to be a future soil farmer of the year. Unfortunately, this system is not available to many so other ways of farming must be found.

Cover crops are undoubtably a great idea to everyone who has the interest to try them. They will not increase organic matter levels in the soil anywhere near as quickly as applying compost, but it is a fantastic second place. We have seen heavy soils lifted and aerated after only one or two sowings and you can really feel the spring in the soil as you walk the fields. The roots grow large and deep in comparison to stunted and on the surface. To start to accomplish this, work has to be done on the best potential seed mix for your soil. You need to also consider the best way to get rid of them, which is generally by sheep or crimping, but herbicides are also needed (we are able to limit herbicide impact and help to repair the bacterial damage the herbicide does to soil life).

A good cover crop can give you a huge boost in plant available nutrients plus the rooting will open the soil and allow new roots to penetrate deep into the ground. Another part of getting a soil ready for a new tillage system is to increase microbiology and the rest of the soil food web. This can be achieved by reducing the amount of nitrogen applied by using a Humate to sequester the nitrogen making its uptake far more efficient. The Humate will also complex phosphorous which stops it locking onto the Cations in the soil.

This means you can put on considerably less and still get more into the plant. Remember, that for every kilogramme of nitrogen that is applied to the soil and is not utilised by the plant you could stand to lose 100kg of organic carbon, which slumps the soil. This explains why so many fields are lower than their surrounding roads. A soil that slumps, put simply, contains no air, which leads to poor rooting, which in turn leads to higher fertiliser and agrochemical use as the plant’s resistance to pest and disease drops.

We have seen that, by supplying a large amount of the required nutrients to the plant as a foliar programme, we can further lighten the load on the soil leading to even better rooting. A reduction in fertiliser and especially agrochemicals will lead to increased yields, so there is no need to accept the drop that we are told to expect. No one system will suit everyone but by having an open mind, looking at the tools at your disposal, and taking well worked out steps you will get a superb soil that works away below your feet providing the nutrients that your plant needs to produce the crop/yield that you want.

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