Chris Dickinson of Agrovista looks at the benefits of different establishment techniques. Wendy Short reports.

It's ‘horses for courses,’ when it comes to making decisions on whether to move from the plough to a min till or direct drilling system, according to Chris Dickinson of Agrovista. He outlines the results of a trial that looked at a range of establishment methods.

The aim of the field-scale trial, which monitored winter wheat yields and margins, was not to pit one system against another, but rather to highlight situations where cost savings might be achieved through a change of establishment technique, said Mr Dickinson. He stressed that matching land type to system is crucial for producing the optimum result. As expected, the weather will have a significant effect on performance.

“In our 2022-23 trial, the margins for plough-based and direct disc establishment were fairly similar at just over £1,900 per hectare. The yield results were slightly higher when the crop was established using the plough, standing at 12.51 tonnes/hectare, compared with 11.72 tonnes/hectare for the direct disc method. Productivity across all the systems was satisfactory, reflecting the successful results recorded across the country after a favourable growing season in general.”

The Northern Farmer: Chris Dickinson

A total of seven establishment systems were put to the test in the trial, which involved a first-wheat crop being sown on October 4 on a site near Balne in North Yorkshire.

“The site was purposely chosen because it presented some challenges, having a heavy clay loam soil with a high magnesium content. It tends to lie wet and there have been problems with establishing break crops on the same fields in previous years. Nevertheless, conditions were good for autumn sowing. The trial area was extensively tested ahead of planting and a full soil analysis was conducted, as well as nitrogen evaluation, pH level testing and worm counts.”

It is important to look at the bigger picture, when evaluating the effect of various establishment techniques, he stressed.

“The financial margin from direct drilling may not always come top of the list when compared with other systems, but it may emerge as the winner in terms of maintaining or improving the soil structure and preserving soil biology. Leaving the soil in good condition will have a knock-on positive effect on the rotation as a whole.

“It was not surprising that the deep-till operation outperformed its rivals on yield, given the heavy soil type. Plant rooting ability can be limited when crops are established using direct drilling and full tillage can offer improved drainage.”

He recommended a staged approach to any change of system.

“The techniques could be ‘mixed and matched’ to suit the land type across the farm, with a contractor perhaps brought in for direct drilling. Some farmers have heard about the potential savings offered by direct drilling and have purchased a machine with grant aid. I consider that a fairly high-risk strategy in some farm situations.

“Instead, the switch could be carried out in stages, possibly starting with a move from the plough to min-till establishment by lightly working the soil. This will reduce fuel costs, compared with the plough.”

The next stage could be strip-tillage, using a drill with a coulter leg or shoe. It will work the seedbed and leave the remainder of the soil uncultivated. If the results are encouraging, then a move to direct drilling may provide an advantage in future years. Moving slowly through the different systems will take time and yield results will need to be accurately recorded, in order to fully assess the results.

“Direct drilling, as well as other related options, may seem like an opportunity for cost savings. However, there is an associated risk and at worst, it could lead to crop failure. The slots created by the disc drill, for example, can create grooves which fill with water after sowing and lead to seed rot. It may be worthwhile to take some steps to reduce compaction before proceeding. Overworked soils can run together and leave the soil capped; a situation that has been witnessed at Balne.

“In conclusion, growers may struggle to achieve good results from direct tillage systems on heavy land, if the correct steps have not been taken with preparation. The most crucial element of changing systems is to match soil type and field aspect, when making decisions on seedbed preparation,” he said.