Does Direct Drilling Pay?

January 2, 2011

If there was only one correct way to establish wheat, every arable grower would do the same thing.  As it is, each farmer has adapted the cultivation and drilling equipment and techniques used to suit the soil, climate and topography of the individual farm.

When we set off down the direct drill route (a radical change from ploughing and following with a powerharrow / drill combination) there was always the nagging doubt or fear of exchanging a proven system to one that may not work.  Those involved in agriculture in the 1970’s will remember the failed experiments with direct drilling.

Using the Christmas period to sit down and work out the costs for the last harvest (2010) has proved to be a useful experience if not necessarily giving the results we wanted.  On the positive side the Oil Seed Rape, Linseed and Winter Beans established well using the Claydon Direct Drill and we have no intention of using any other method.  Whilst Winter Linseed was a novel crop to us, the OSR and Beans yielded well and were above the 5 year average.  The wheat is more of a dilemma.

We compared the yield of 6 fields,  3 established via the direct drill and 3 using the traditional plough and powerharrow / combination route all growing a veriety called “Alchemy”.  This is not a scientific experiment, more of a back of an envelope job with numerous variables not accounted for.  However the yield benefit of ploughing appears to be 0.35t / ha which at £150 / tonne is approximately £52 / ha  (£21 / acre).  However was there a cost saving in using the direct drill to establish the wheat crop?  In our small sample of 6 fields the answer is “no”.  It appears that the savings of making only one pass with the drill was largely swallowed up in making two more passes with the sprayer (plus spray) and one more pass with the slug pellet applicator (plus pellets).  The final costing incurred appear almost identical.

Where does this leave the direct drill when establishing wheat?  This Autumn we established all our wheat using the direct drill save one field.

Drilling Wheat in Rape Volunteers 21/9/10

Drilling Wheat in Rape Volunteers 21/9/10 (Left undrilled / Right drilled)

Wheat established by Claydon

The wheat crop on the 11/11/10

It was a kind year to drill this time but it appears the soil OM and structure are changing for the better and should mean the yields improve.  Mistakes such as using low seed rates have been corrected.  In other words, we are confident enough in the system to keep trying.  Any suggestions for the perfect system would be most welcome.

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