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U. K. Farm Lays Plow To Rest

There’s a lot to be said for traditional plow and power harrow/seeder based cultivations systems. It remains an almost weather-proof process and, as a result of the plow, gives perhaps the cleanest seedbeds possible since the U. K. banning of stubble burning.

Yet it’s also a system that can carry high time and cost penalties when it comes to output and fuel consumption.

Until recently, this traditional mouldboard policy was the one favoured by farmer James Ireland, of Petersham Farms near Wimborne, Dorset. “You have to accept that, with the plow, there are always going to be more costs involved, and there’s also an upper ceiling to productivity when you opt for such a bomb-proof system,” says Ireland.

A look back at Petersham’s former extensive livestock enterprise, which dovetailed with cropping, reveals that a 200-cow herd was cause enough for such a safe approach to cultivations.

“We did have a large number of cows to work with on a daily basis, so our time, labour and machinery were thoroughly stretched,” he says. “The arable enterprise had to fit in with the dairy unit. Ultimately, the plow and power harrow/drill system was a compromise, but it did mean that we could work down the seedbeds when the dairy unit allowed.”

A change in the availability of labour prompted Petersham Farms to revise its business strategy, and the resulting move out of milk production enabled the farm to concentrate on developing its arable business — although the farm still maintains a 100-head herd of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle.

With the dairy gone, attention then turned to improving the cultivation and drilling regime across Petersham’s 950 acres of combinable crops. But with the farm’s soils being predominantly sandy clay loam over clay — either very wet in the winter or bone dry at other times — Ireland says that finding a suitable alternative to the plough was no easy task.

“At the extremes, our ground is either like porridge or concrete; there’s very little in between,” he explains. “We needed more output, but without generating a requirement for large amounts of horsepower or yet more diesel or labour. We also didn’t want any drop in yields.” Ireland says that the route they chose was an almost accidental one, as a neighbour had already changed to non-inversion cultivations.

“A neighbour had bought a Kverneland’s CLD cultivator and I was intrigued to see just what sort of a job it was doing,” he says. “I was impressed with what I saw, so arranged a demonstration to work with our existing tractor horsepower.

“I put the cultivator into a couple of stubble fields, but chose to work down only around half of each field. This allowed me to compare our plough system with that of the CLD cultivator across the same type of ground.

“Resulting crop growth, which remained greener and stronger-looking throughout winter, was enough to convince me that I needed to make some changes pretty quickly. So I bought a 3m (10-foot) ex-demo CLD cultivator at a cost of about 3,000 — that was five years ago now — and put the plow and power harrow in the back of the barn.”

the season when conditions have started to deteriorate.

“Perhaps the one lingering downside to our tine-based system is that we have noticed uneven emergence, although it doesn’t seem to have impacted on yields. There’s a bit more blackgrass incidence, which we can control by using the spring-sown crops in our rotation, and we’re getting an increase in slug activity, too.”

Those are the downers, yet Ireland still remains convinced that any potential negatives are more than countered by the tine system’s plus points. With drilling dates rarely missed, fuel use halved, and labour and machinery costs significantly reduced, he is confident that he now has crop establishment costs under control, along with a decent drilling output that enables him to get the planting job done in the optimum time.

Tractor-wise, Ireland hasn’t stood still, either. Despite managing with just the one tractor in both 2007 and 2008, he took the decision to double his tractor fleet for 2009. “Two awkward seasons just stretched us a little with only the TM155,” he says. “So we’ve added a New Holland T6070. It does all the jobs that the TM will, and takes the pressure off should we want to cultivate and drill simultaneously.

“Buying the tractor was also a bit of a no-brainer,” he says. “Our local dealer was offering zero per cent finance over four years, and there was also a three-year warranty on the tractor. I couldn’t walk away, and decided it was better value than searching for a second-hand tractor with an inflated residual.”

COMBINE AND GRAIN STORAGE

Another of Ireland’s recent purchases is the farm’s combine. He replaced the previous 14-year-old New Holland TX66 (21-foot header) with a machine that could chop and spread straw/trash much more effectively. “Straw and chaff management is essential if we are to succeed with our tined cultivations and drilling strategy, so I had to address the issue of straw chopping/ spreading. The potential for contract combine work — we now help a neighbour with an additional 400 acres — finally swung the buying decision and meant we could opt for a bit more capacity, too.”

He eventually found a one-year old New Holland CX8060 with a 24-foot Varifeed header, and negotiated a 30,000 trade-in value on the 14-year old TX.

Since the CX’s arrival at Petersham Farms, the harvester has undergone slight modification to help fill the farm’s trailers. “A lot of combine makers don’t put enough length on the auger sleeve to protect the grain in windy conditions. It cost me 50 to add a longer sleeve on the end of the auger. Job done.”

The new combine has given Petersham Farms a useful boost in output and, with plenty of building space with ventilated floors, there’s no fear when it comes to bringing grain in from the fields with a moisture content of up to 18 per cent.

“It really is down to taking care of every trailer load that comes back to the yard,” he comments. “Every load is checked for moisture content, and Mike then manages where he tips so we can blend wetter grain with drier grain as each day’s harvesting progresses.”

This philosophy of good yard management has been fundamental in Petersham Farms eliminating the need for its Bentall continuous flow grain dryer.

“We took the decision to remove the old dryer in 2003 and focus on improving our load management. This meant using ventilated floors but only with ambient air.

We have about 1,500 tonnes of storage on concrete floors and another 1,200 tonnes of storage on ventilated floors.”

The farm also has cooling towers that can be put into store and a mobile stirrer, both of which are considered to be safety nets for the more challenging seasons.

“Fortunately, we have enough space to segregate and manage crops accordingly and, with a higher capacity combine, we can sit tight until the moisture content comes down a little further,” says Ireland, admitting, however, that the 2009 harvest was still an extremely challenging one.

SUMMARY

After six years of tweaking and refining the harvest and cultivations processes at Petersham Farms, James Ireland is pleased with the way his simple system has evolved.

“We now have a cost-effective cultivation and drilling regime that will be difficult for us to improve upon,” he says. “We still have all our old kit. But, to be honest, it just isn’t worth selling, even though it’s unlikely we’ll ever use it again in anger.

“If we can continue to add a few more arable acres, it will help to spread our costs a little bit further.”

Geoff Ashcroft writes for profi. For more on the European farm machinery magazine, go to www.profi.com.Grainews readers can get a free sample of the magazine, either by mail or email, by going to www.profi-int.com/grainewsand providing your name and address.

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