Adopting minimum-tillage is a great way of saving costs. But in certain years — like the two just passed in the United Kingdom — the technique can’t always be put into practice.
The problems are exacerbated for those growers in the west of the country, who often suffer the worst of the weather. And the bigger the farm gets, the more acute these problems become. With scale comes efficiency, but so too does the headache of attempting to have everything drilled up before bad weather closes in.
Arthur Hill of Shropshire, England, has first-hand experience of all these issues and is fairly pragmatic about how best to cope with them.
“Having more hectares does help to justify machinery purchases. But, whatever happens, you’ve still got to be able to cover that ground,” he explains. “What’s key is knowing how much that kit is costing you per tonne of grain or per animal you produce.
“Some people would take a look at our equipment line-up and say we’re over-kitted. But with some careful budgeting I know that we’re clearing a good profit and, more important, we’re pretty confident that we can get the ground turned over every autumn, no matter what the weather.”
The armoury of Hill cultivations tackle is certainly comprehensive. Two plows — a five-and a seven-furrow — plus a four-metre (13-foot) Lemken Rubin 9 stubble cultivator spearhead the line-up, with a Simba CultiPress providing consolidation ahead of a four-metre Solitair drill. This mixed fleet allows Hill to vary his approach, depending on weather, soil conditions and cropping.
“We can select kit to suit what’s going on at the time. Last year, this capability proved critical: About 85 per cent was plowed rather than min-tilled because we just wouldn’t have got on the ground otherwise. In a more typical season we would hope to min-till all the first wheat land following rape and beans.” That said, the plow is not completely abandoned for this first-wheat task. Although the middle of the fields are min-tilled, all headlands have the plow run round them at least six times to restrict the encroachment of blackgrass and bromes from the farm’s many stewardship strips.
Hill first trialed minimum-tillage nine years ago when it became apparent that to cover over 1,000 hectares (2,500 acres) in the autumn, a different approach was required.
“We needed to push on to get our crops in the ground, and by min-tilling we were significantly speeding up the seeding job. This reduced workload also meant that our costs fell by about 30 per cent through savings in labour and diesel. Yet it quickly became clear that min-till wasn’t quite as simple as going in with the plow and power harrow combination. Min-till takes a lot more management; the conditions have to be just right.”
Hill’s first ventures into the world of reduced cultivations saw the farm using a set of Simba discs with the CultiPress trailed behind. A four-metre Amazone power harrow combination would then follow. After a couple of years, Hill’s confidence in the min-till system began to grow, and he trialed a Rubin 9 disc/press cultivator.
“The trial showed just how well the combination of discs and press