Sunday, October 21, 2018

Cultivation problems cut deep on farm

May 9, 2016 by  
Filed under Clodhopper

Moving away from the plough towards shallower cultivations has caused more problems than it solved, says Fen Tiger.

Much of March was colder than November and spring weather has yet to appear – at least in this part of the world. As a result, I find myself in a muddle – although mostly self-inflicted.

I have once again tried to cut costs and, with blackgrass an ongoing problem, spring cropping has become the norm for us over the last two or three years. To control blackgrass, the farm has moved away from traditional ploughing and taken on a policy of shallow continuous cultivation.

The plough-based system worked well with the combination drill following behind, although sometimes a third tractor was needed between the plough and drill – something like a trailed press or maybe a second power harrow.

It was a slow job and seed beds were not exactly clod-free. But with a roll behind it produced good results. However, with blackgrass ever increasing and chemical control becoming ineffective a different approach has been adopted.

We tested different makes of cultivation equipment and finally established a system that even now I am unsure is the way forward. The problem is the movement of soil and drainage. Ploughed work in the spring dries easily: water gradually works its way down and leaves the top 3-5 inches workable.

Sometimes a simple one-pass operation was all that was required using the combination drill. And with the plough based system there was always time for some rotational subsoiling which helped the spring drainage if necessary.


As the new cultivation system took shape, less time was devoted to autumn subsoiling as the continuous cultivation took over. So having found myself with a non-plough system, all the spring land has been min-tilled and lays wet – saturated even.

At the moment, I cannot understand the meaning of “minimum tillage”. In the dictionary, “minimum” is defined as the least to which anything may be reduced. But I have used a straw rake, then two more passes, then the drill – and all to replaces one plough plus drill.

So I feel I am not reducing my workload. And I believe that the constant disturbance of the soil is encouraging more blackgrass to germinate which is then subsequently sprayed off – a good idea if weather conditions allow.

I was too impatient to wait until late October to drill, which the agronomist said I should have done. But it was a good job I did not listen to him as the land would have been too wet to drill – which again means more spring work.

And that’s the trouble with this system. A neighbour was convinced to use this technique and left his sugar beet land cultivated over winter. His land cannot now bear any large machinery and the prospect of drilling direct is a complete non-starter.

How do I dry out the land this spring? It will not take a one pass operation so in order to achieve a dry seedbed I have to move the soil first. But what with? A power harrow mixes the dry with the wet and leaves a putty-like soil. And any tine that goes in too deep just pulls up plasticine.

Every machine has been dragged out of the nettles, with most going back there again. Maybe the farm’s drainage system does need updating but I cannot help thinking that this problem never happened when the plough based system was adopted.

Maybe I didn’t think things through enough? When they said minimum tillage, perhaps they meant a one-pass system, just cutting a grove and placing the seed with minimum soil movement. The current system still moves all the soil all the time.

As wider, bigger cultivation equipment is used, this in turn requires heavier and more powerful tractors. Hence many people use tracked machines which come into play. I’m not sure they really cause less compaction – after all, in my case, more passes cause more compaction.

So, with the need to cut costs again and quicken up each application, I feel that the concept or art of farming is being lost. In a few years time, will anyone still have a plough or even be able to operate one? I am not sure.

But maybe I will have to bring back the good old plough here. Yes, it will cost me more in cultivation costs but it is no good saving pence per acre in the autumn if my wheat is full of blackgrass come April.

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