Friday, October 19, 2018

Input costs reduced by precision farming and no-till management

July 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Crops

No-till crop establishment and the latest precision farming technologies are reducing cropping costs and improving soil health for Overbury Enterprises.

Managed by Jake Freestone, the business extends to 1,600ha ranging from Cotswold brash at 1000ft to sand over gravel and heavy Lias clays at 100ft on the Worcestershire-Gloucestershire border, near Tewkesbury.

In addition to 950ha of combinable crops, the LEAF demonstration farm includes 100ha of vegetables and 60ha of hand-picked peas, the farm also hosts a flock of 1,100 ewes on 300ha of permanent pasture.

Mr Freestone says no-till cropping has enabled the implementation of an arable conservation agriculture policy. “We’re practising conservation agriculture in an effort to ensure the farm’s biggest asset, its soils, remain healthy and viable for this and future farming generations.”

On higher land, the rotation is oilseed rape, winter wheat, winter cover crop, hand-picked peas, cover crop, wheat, winter cover crop, spring barley and winter barley. On heavier land, three wheat crops are separated by break crops of oilseed rape, combinable peas and spring linseed.

Cover and companion crops

Vetch, crimson clover and buckwheat are sown as companion crops to oilseed rape. Soya beans are used on land where the estate’s shoot makes rape unviable due to potential bird damage. And any soil likely to remain bare for more than five weeks is sown with a cover crop.

Key to the no-till policy is the farm’s Cross Slot drill. “We first trialled cross-slot drilling in 2013 when we worked with Prime West to sow 40ha. It’s a technique I’d seen being used to good effect in New Zealand to maintain natural soil structure, reduce soil erosion and retain soil moisture.

Direct drilling with the Cross Slot also reduces the amount of capital tied up in machinery and, being a one-pass system, reduces fuel usage. “By having fewer implements and fewer tractors in operation, and by making fewer passes, we’ll save £280,000 over 10 years.”

The estate’s sheep enterprise also complements the no-till policy as Jake explains: “Whenever feasible, we’ll use the sheep to graze off the cover crops. This puts manure back into the system and improves the biology of soils which would otherwise be adversely sterile.”

Establishment costs

Using the Cross Slot drill enables the placement seed, base fertiliser and slug pellets in a single pass.  Winter wheat can be established on lighter land for just £45 per hectare, and at a rate of 6ha/hour or 10 minutes per hectare.

Compared to the old four-pass tillage system, which took almost an hour per hectare, the business is better equipped to drill crops quickly during favourable weather windows. Additional income is generated by contracting for neighbouring farmers and staff have a better work-life balance.

“But we wouldn’t be able to achieve these advantages if we didn’t have the right control tools in place to enable us to use the kit accurately. We’re using RTK-enabled autosteer on the sprayer and drill tractor, and have also equipped our current sprayer with individual nozzle control.”

The estate’s first steps into precision farming were taken in 2006 when two tractors were retrofitted with automatic steering. From there it progressed to a 36m Bateman sprayer with 10-sections controlled through a Topcon X20 console.

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