How Direct Drilling Copes with the Wet - Agrii - Connecting Agri-science with farming

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February 11, 2013

How Direct Drilling Copes with the Wet

By practicing what they preach, the Claydon family used the drill that carries their name to sow not only their own 480ha farm last autumn, but also contract drill a further 1,020ha of winter oilseed rape and cereals.

The key to successful direct drilling with the Claydon system, whatever the autumn weather, says Spencer Claydon, is to drill early. While completely contrary to the delay drilling to control blackgrass ethos espoused by almost all advisors, it’s a technique that certainly paid dividends this past, extremely wet autumn.

“I wouldn’t say the crops are perfect – but the whole farm was drilled up by 27th September, we now have a crop and it’s not looking too bad. We were lucky as most of our crops were drilled early in the previous autumn, giving us an earlier harvest. As we are all aware the late harvest in some areas, gave little opportunity to establish a crop. This season is a sharp reminder, timing is everything!!  Users, who ignored our advice to drill early, also got into problems.

“But the 1,000ha of contract work we also carried out shows how direct drilling with the Hybrid will work when nothing else would go. Although we wouldn’t normally recommend drilling into some of the conditions we encountered, the crops are in and growing,” he says. Unsurprisingly, slugs have been a major problem, which continue to be present in plague proportions right through until the beginning of January.

The Claydons farm 480ha from their base at Gaines Hall Farm, Wickhambrook in Suffolk, on predominantly Hanslope Series Grade 2 heavy clay land. They have been direct drilling for the past 11 years and have honed the rotation to first wheat, second wheat and oilseed rape – with each of the crops accounting for roughly a third of the area.

In common with most of the rest of the country, the farm received more than its fair share of rain in autumn 2012. While the annual total was 628mm (October-October), a deluge of 494.7mm was measured between April to October – That is double the amount for the same period in the previous season and, indeed, 100mm more than the total for all of 2010/11.

“It’s ironic,” adds Spencer Claydon, “but one of main the reasons we initially developed the drill was to help conserve moisture; as well as provide a faster, cheaper alternative to trying to batter out an oilseed rape seedbed from the hard-baked clay.

“With no need for preceding cultivations, direct drilling also means it’s possible to quickly take immediate advantage of every opportunity – with a 6m wide Hybrid model capable of working at 4ha/hr. In the process it also produces massive establishment cost and time savings.

With more than a decade’s experience with the drill and system, the Claydons stuck to their normal routine this wet autumn. Despite the poor conditions they were confident the high output of up to 48ha/day would enable them to get the crops established. “This means the entire farm can be planted up in about ten days. It only takes three good days in August to drill the oilseed rape, which we aim to start on 10th August.

“If we have time or conditions allow, we will try to get in at least one pass with the straw rake, and a glyphosate spray. But if not, we will chase the combine out of the field with the drill. Drilling early, in a ‘normal’ year, allows the crop, sown direct into the stubble, to access the moisture. We also don’t lose moisture through any other cultivations.

“Last season we drilled Osr at our normal time and, actually it was absolutely fine and fairly dry. We did put on a few slug pellets at sowing, but it’s surprising to remember now, but there were a good few dry days earlier in the season!”

The farm grows DK Cabernet and the typical seed rate is about 3kg/ha / 60-70 Seeds per square metre. This could be lower, but the fields are surrounded by trees and pigeon damage is a constant problem.

As well as being an important break crop, oilseed rape also plays a significant role in grassweed control. “Kerb (propyzamide) provides excellent, reliable results and is the perfect match for the direct drilling system, which only disturbs the soil with the drilling tines, leaving the weed seeds and volunteers on the surface, with straw raking helping promote weed seed chit. This is exactly the conditions Kerb requires and why, in our experience it is so effective,” explains Spencer Claydon.

Also with 30cm row spacing’s, and seeds sown in 18cm wide bands by the ‘A’ blades there is much more crop coverage than with narrower, traditional drills, he explains. Combined with sowing earlier the crop can get away quickly, which Spencer Claydon adds, helps create much stronger competition, effectively smothering the weeds. “That’s why, despite contradicting the advice to delay drilling to combat blackgrass, we still achieve good control,” he explains.

The drill is being used as the direct drilling example in Agrii’s blackgrass and establishment trials at Stow Longa, near Huntingdon. In these independent and scientifically controlled trials early Wheat drilling produced the highest margin over establishment and chemical costs at nearly £1,100/ha – nearly £200/ha more than the same machine, by sowing earlier.

Interestingly, the 2012 results (see graph) show the plough, one pass tillage and direct drilling techniques at the same later drilling date all produce margins between about £750/ha to £850/ha, which confirms the merits of the Claydons’ recommendation to drill early.

“It is worth noting, however,” adds Spencer Claydon, “that our drill was not working into continuously direct drilled land, which would have kept the blackgrass on the top where it can be treated in our usual way.

“Also the trials show, consistently, that ploughing remains the farmer’s trump card when it comes to reducing large numbers of blackgrass. Indeed, if we ever had a really bad resistant blackgrass infestation here, my father Jeff, and me would not hesitate to use the plough, provided this is done carefully and properly to deeply bury the seeds. Then we would return to using our system with the straw rake and drill to ensure the seeds stayed there and are not brought back up. Deeper cultivations, we feel, mix and bring the seeds back up, spreading them through the profile and that makes blackgrass so difficult to control.”

Back in Suffolk, while the Claydons’ oilseed rape was sown on time and in relatively good conditions the weather quickly deteriorated putting pressure on their drill early philosophy. But they remained confident that although two thirds of the farm remained bare, when conditions were right all they needed was seven good days.

Also over a decade of direct drilling and no deep cultivations has produced a good soil structure with lots of worms. In dry years this helps conserve moisture, while in the wet it encourages the rain permeate through the soil, says Spencer Claydon.

“This year it was obviously exceptional and the land was, like in other areas, very wet. But the good structure with strong ‘columns’ of uncultivated soil meant we were able to often travel when others, who use deeper cultivations, were not. Also being mounted, the drill copes much better with the wet conditions than trailed machines, which is why I am sure we picked up more than 1,000ha of contract drilling work,” he adds.

Wheat started to go into the ground on 10th September, with the family not only sticking to their drill early routine, but also following their normal practice to sow the second wheat’s first. Doing this, following as many passes as possible with the straw rake, they feel helps the crop cope with the high volume of straw on the surface.

“Again the warmer soil helps germination. Moisture obviously wasn’t a problem this year but in ‘normal’ seasons the straw mat acts like a thatch to either prevent the soil drying out or protect the surface from the rain. We find normal rain will then permeate through the straw and find its way into the slots cut by the drill tines,” explains Spencer Claydon.

“The second wheat’s get a good, early start which produces stronger plants, which are more able to compete with weeds, slugs and the weather. Slugs have of course, have been a huge problem. But we use the straw harrow as much as possible to help control them and their eggs and always check the numbers before applying pellets,” he adds.

In the meantime, the oilseed rape stubble was straw raked as many times as possible ahead of a treatment with glyphosate before drilling the first wheat. In this situation the harrowing operation is not so much to spread the trash, but as well as disturbing the slugs also encourage weed and volunteers to germinate, with following passes killing these off – like hoeing.

“This is another benefit of only scratching the surface to no more than 10 -30mm. It doesn’t bring up any more seeds but produces a perfect ‘micro-seedbed’. Straw harrowing is a fast and cheap operation. A 150hp tractor will easily work at 20km/hr. covering 100ha in ten hours and consume only 1 litre/ha of fuel in the process, providing very inexpensive and effective weed control,” adds Spencer Claydon.

While Kerb (Propyzamide) in the oilseed rape crop provides good grass weed control foundations, the campaign continues in the wheat’s. The second wheat went in following a pass of glyphosate followed by Crystal. This was due Atlantis in November, but because of high winds and rain this was not applied until the first week of January when the weed had reached the three/four leaf stage. With soil temperatures above 7°c and the right conditions it seemed too good an opportunity to miss!

With early Wheat drilling I like to take the weeds out early, and get a strong well tillered wheat crop, which is very competitive as in my experience, thin late crops allow more weeds to grow over a longer period, making it very difficult to control them. Later germinating blackgrass is less of a problem in a strong crop, and often does not feature.

Claydon’s spring sowing tips

The Claydon Hybrid direct drilling technique’s ability to sow straight into stubbles and cover up to 48ha/day could be the answer this spring for many growers facing vast areas of failed uncropped land too wet to drill at the end of last year.

Again timing is as important in the spring as it in the winter, says Spencer Claydon. “The crucial factor for spring drilling is usually moisture and that is why we reverse our autumn recommendations and advise growers to delay drilling in the spring.

“While in most areas moisture is not going to be the problem this spring, we still feel it’s best to still hold off for as long as possible. Instead of planting into wet and cold land, allow time for the soils to warm up and direct drill straight into the stubbles possibly a week to ten days later than you would normally,” he advises.

If it is dry enough, a pass with the straw rake will provide some benefits spreading any trash and, this season it will help reduce any remaining slugs and their eggs, if there continues to be no hard frosts or snow. Then the idea is to wait for the soils to warm up and take advantage of good weather windows. Applying glyphosate to remove over-wintered blackgrass and volunteers before drilling.

Claydon advice for a very wet season

* Drill early. When conditions are right get going!

* Straw harrow to break up and distribute crop residues, reducing slug numbers and their eggs also encourage weed growth

* Drill second wheat’s first, especially if working into chopped straw

* Don’t drill work too deep – for cereals set the front tine to 100mm, for oilseed rape and beans just 150mm

* Replace ‘batter boards’ with spring tine, following harrows

* Don’t be afraid to straw harrow after drilling, once the soil has hazed off to help improve seed coverage

* Consider switching to the open seeding boot to reduce the chance of seed outlets blocking

Establishment time and costs for 500ha

Claydon figures, from their own 480ha farm, show they are saving about £80,000 and up to 750 hours of work using a 6m wide Hybrid drill powered by a 330hp, John Deere 8530. This, they add, is because direct drilling takes about a fifth of the time and is a third of cost compared with a full plough, cultivate and drill regime.