This year’s numerous challenges continued into autumn on the Claydon family’s arable farm in Suffolk, writes Jeff Claydon, who invented the Opti-Till® direct strip seeding system.
Date: 27 November 2023.
What a difference a year makes! I started my last article for Direct Driller, written on 29 August, by suggesting that further agronomic, meteorological, political and economic headwinds would likely continue to test our resolve in the months ahead. They have certainly done that! Between New Year’s Day and when we finished harvest, a stop-go affair which promised much but was ultimately unexceptional, the total rainfall amounted to 436mm. The year-to-date figure has now reached 840mm!
What a contrast this autumn had been compared to last, when it was so dry post-harvest that getting weed seeds and volunteers to chit in the hard, parched soils was difficult. Because of this, and in common with many farms throughout the country regardless of the establishment system used, we saw more grassweeds in standing crops, requiring intensive stubble management.
Fortunately, meaningful rain after the combine had done its job created the ideal conditions for our Claydon Straw Harrow, an implement I often compare with a telescopic handler; you don’t see the need for one until you have one, then you wonder how you ever managed without it.
We went to work with the Straw Harrow immediately behind the combine and in the following weeks carried out five or six passes across the farm. That knocked the stuffing out of weeds and volunteers, as well as severely limiting the life of any slugs in the chopped straw. On 12 October glyphosate was applied to kill the remaining green material, but almost immediately the heavens opened, dropping 60mm of rain.
The first winter wheat went in on 15 October, albeit under slightly damp conditions, and over the next three days we established 75 per cent of the planned area using our 6m Claydon Evolution M6 drill. Particularly good progress was made until the door of opportunity was slammed rudely in our face by heavy rain on the night of 18 October. Over the next three days 93mm fell, followed by an average of 10mm every day for the remainder of the month. A further 60mm during the first three days of November simply compounded the problem. It just goes to show that however much you plan Mother Nature always has the last word.
So much rain falling in a short period made the application of post-emergence herbicides more difficult on our very heavy Hanslope series soils, but at least we were able to do it. The task was only possible because the firm, supportive soil structure left behind the Claydon drill allowed our self-propelled sprayer to travel virtually unhindered. However, it remains to be seen whether product efficacy has been impaired.
BUOYANT ATMOSPHERE AT AGRITECHNICA
Agritechnica 2023 in Hanover, Germany from 12 to 18 November was the first since 2019, the planned 2021 event having been cancelled due to ongoing Covid-19 restrictions. Attracting over 470,000 visitors, this mind-boggling display of agricultural technology has to be experienced to be believed.
There is significant cost involved in exhibiting at the world’s biggest agricultural show, from stand space, stand builders, catering, hotel, to travel and subsistence costs for all the Claydon team, but the investment is certainly worth it in terms of sales, contacts made and market awareness. With my eldest son Oliver at the wheel of his hybrid vehicle we headed to Hanover in an environmentally friendly fashion. Driving from Suffolk to the Channel Tunnel we couldn’t help but notice that the whole of southern England looked wet and drab, a theme which would continue in Europe.
Travelling through France, Belgium and Germany things didn’t get much better. Wherever we went 25 per cent of the land appeared to be waterlogged, the emerging crops barely visible above flooded land which resembled paddy fields. Those images left us thinking that this could have severe implications in terms of crop yields and prices in the months ahead. Feed wheat is currently circa £180 per tonne and oilseed rape £360/t, suggesting that no-one is seriously considering how much less farmers across much of Northern Europe might be harvesting in 2024.
Claydon was one of the few British companies exhibiting at Agritechnica and because, collectively, our staff speak many languages we were able to talk to most visitors in their native tongue. Amongst them were some from Bulgaria where, ironically, the weather had been remarkably dry.
The show was buzzing and over seven days the Claydon team welcomed happy customers from all corners of the world, many of whom have been using our Opti-Till® system for many years to successfully establish the widest range of crops quickly and efficiently in all types of terrain, soils and conditions.
Agritechnica 2023 featured a massive choice of equipment dedicated to the apparently simple task of establishing arable crops and it would be possible to spend a vast amount to do that. But why would you, especially at a time when combinable crops prices are significantly below where they should be to support a thriving farming industry?
Avoiding the complexity, excessive weight, high capital cost and substantial on-going running costs of many other methods, Opti-Till® delivers excellent results, very cost-effectively. Numerous customers to our stand at Agritechnica advised us that they are operating Claydon drills for €3 to €4/ha in wearing metal costs and that is much, much lower than many other systems.
The advantages of Opti-Till® obviously resonated with those wanting a simple, practical approach. We took hundreds of enquiries from farmers in 34 countries, many of whom are looking to change the way they establish their crops, for a host of reasons.
One of the key themes at Agritechnica was in-crop weeding, particularly inter-row hoeing. I recall being very sceptical when, a decade or so ago, my cousin David suggested that we should consider developing an inter-row hoe for use in strip seeded cereal crops. The reduction in herbicides availability and effectiveness are just two reasons behind the success of the Claydon Terra-Blade which we developed. A simple, low-cost implement, it is highly effective at removing weeds between the rows in cereal crops up to and including Growth Stage 31.
I was amazed to see the range of equipment available in this sector but taken aback by the high price tags and complexity of some of it, largely reflecting customer demand for it to be self-steering. Claydon have developed and comprehensively evaluated self-steering inter-row hoes and we appreciate that they may have advantages in certain situations. However, we discounted any commercial development because their much greater complexity means that such products would be much more expensive, cost more to maintain and possibly be less reliable.
Claydon’s goal is to produce simple, effective, cost-efficient equipment which will reliably fulfil its intended purpose for many years. These attributes are becoming increasingly important as farming businesses look to keep machinery for longer to amortise the increasing capital cost over a longer period.
Having used a manually steered 6m Claydon TerraBlade to hoe thousands of hectares of cereals on our own farm over the years I can vouch for the fact that it does the job efficiently, effectively and reliably, with none of the drawbacks of far more costly and complex alternatives. However, there are some customers who would like to see guided self-steering hoes, so our engineers will be looking to offer this option going forward for those prepared to invest the extra cost.
EXPERIMENTING WITH DRILLING TIMINGS
On the return journey from Hanover to Suffolk the countryside was still as wet as it had been when we left. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that on my first day back home I drove around the farm to look at our crops.
Having been incredibly nervous about sowing oilseed rape immediately after harvest following painful experiences with cabbage stem flea beetle damage in recent years, I was pleased to see most of it looking extremely well; let’s hope it stays that way!
Cabbage stem flea beetle has caused a small amount of damage, but nothing excessive at present, so we will continue to monitor that situation closely. In the meantime, grassweeds have been taken out with Centurion Max and we await some dry weather to apply Kerb®. Hopefully, the crop will be much cleaner this season, although with oilseed rape currently £360/t it is not particularly viable from a financial standpoint. But what’s the alternative as there are no outstanding contenders out there at present?
As an experiment we drilled an area of oilseed rape in mid-September hoping that it would avoid flea beetle attack, but the jury is still out on whether that approach will work. Some damage is evident, it is way behind that which was sown in August and looks very vulnerable.
Another interesting experiment we are trialling is in the Bio sector. There are so many companies experimenting with Bio products and many on offer, from some offering microbes to improve soil health, etc. We are currently using a natural product that encourages the biome in the soil, providing many health benefits, improving fertility, friability and the ability of the soil to withstand the weather events which we are experiencing. After our first-year trial in 2023 it looks promising, so we will continue to evaluate it in 2024.
This season, largely because wet weather curtailed autumn drilling, we will be growing more spring oats than ever before, but the crop is also significantly less risky than oilseed rape. In preparation we have Straw Harrowed stubbles up to six times to take out germinating volunteers and weeds at the cotyledon stage and any green material will be sprayed off before Christmas. This is important because over-wintering blackgrass seems to have a toxic effect on the soil and subsequently a detrimental effect on crop performance. The land will be left to rest over the winter, then another dose of glyphosate will go on in the spring just before drilling.
Catchy weather at harvest meant that field operations inevitably caused some surface compaction, although this was minimal by most standards due to the supportive nature of our direct drilled soils. Importantly, the leading tines on our 6m Claydon Evo drill remove this ahead of the seeding tines, so seed goes into ideal conditions and grows rapidly.
Winter wheat established in October before the onset of relentless rain looks good and is significantly more advanced than where we experimented with slightly deeper drilling to avoid the emerging crop potentially being affected by pre-emergence herbicides. Did we make the wrong decision in doing that and will we need to reconsider whether that approach was correct? Time will tell.
Most of our land is well drained, but I am pleased we took the opportunity presented by ideal weather in early October to mole 40 hectares where water had been slow to get away. That, combined with the effect of the Claydon drill’s leading tines, has been enormously beneficial in terms of allowing water to move from the surface down to the laterals. Exceptional rainfall since then has highlighted a few small areas elsewhere where excessive moisture is holding crops back, so we will attend to those next year and have already booked our drainage contractor for the spring.
In my next report I will let you know how our autumn-sown crops are faring following the winter and outline our plans for spring drilling.
The Claydon website (claydondrill.com) galleries contain numerous videos on soil health and resilience, as well as showing the Claydon Opti-Till® System being used to establish all types of crops, in all situations, both in the UK and overseas. You can also keep up with the latest posts, photographs, and videos from Claydon and its customers through the Claydon Facebook page www.facebook.com/Claydondrill