Claydon Straw Rake to Improve Weed and Slug Control?

August 7, 2012

The past five years have been a great learning curve for us in how to direct drill crops and avoid moving too much soil.  In fact it is the complete opposite of the previous farming system where the plough was used to move top 6-9 inches of soil across the whole field.  Some farmers refer to direct drilling as ‘zero tilling’ though it does depend on the drill used.  The following two links are useful: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No-till_farming and http://no-tillalliance.co.uk/#.

The decision not to invert the soil does lead to problems with what to do with the crop residue left after combining, particularly in Oil Seed Rape where the straw was baled.

Crop residue after harvest

Crop residue after harvest

In wet years slugs can rapidly multiply under the straw and stubble left behind.  Slugs can cause massive damage to young plants or even crop failure.  Control is mainly achieved through using slug pellets though rolling the seedbed after drilling will help. A second problem is trying to get weed seed to chit so that they can be controlled.

Slug in crop residue

Slug in crop residue

Straw harrowing is a fast and very low cost operation that can be used just once or a number of times to create a micro-tilth for fast weed germination, hoe out weeds and kill slugs before drilling whilst retaining the moisture, organic matter and structure in the soil.  The picture below is the first time the rake is used on the farm.

New rake being used on Oil Seed Rape Stubble after baling

New rake being used on Oil Seed Rape Stubble after baling

The aim is to move the residue, and create enough tilth for weed seeds to germinate. The harrow levels straw and damages slug nests and their eggs, moving straw trash and drying out the slug nests

The harrow encourages weed seeds to germinate at the top of the soil, giving fast & even germination and a great kill strike rate from re-harrowing or spraying.  Below shows the split in the field where the rake has been used and has still to pass.

Rake pass moves the crop residue

Rake pass moves the crop residue

We hope the rake will result in a relatively cheap way of reducing the cost of slug and weed control.

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.

What’s that blue crop growing in your field?

May 28, 2010

A few neighbours have stopped us and asked ‘What’s that blue crop growing in your fields?’ Well, it is linseed which is also sometimes known as flax. This year it is being used as a break crop instead of the usual oil seed rape or winter beans.

Linseed can be planted in the Autumn (Winter Linseed) or the Spring.  Historically, winter linseed has been quite a difficult and temperamental crop to grow because it is sensitive to the climate and could suffer badly in harsh winters but, if the winters are mild then often the crop becomes too thick.

The crop below was planted last Autumn and will be harvested on the farm this year, probably at the end of July or early August.

linseed - view from Newland bank

linseed - view from Newland bank

It was sown using the direct drill. It is a beneficial crop to grow on the farm as it allows the farmer to control some weeds more easily than in wheat, and should allow an easy low till entry into wheat.  Slugs do not appear to like linseed and no chemical pesticide control is normally required.

linseed flower

linseed flower

The yield for winter linseed should be in the range 2.5 – 3.5 t/ha (1.0 – 1.4 t/ac) however, as this is the first year we have grown the crop, we will have to wait and see if our expectations have been met.

Traditionally linseed has been grown because of the oil it produces; this is added to paints and varnishes and assists with the drying and hardening processes.  More recently linseed seeds are used in health foods because it is rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids, omega 3 and 6. It can also be added to animal feeds and has been woven to make a fabric.

linseed in flower

linseed in flower

The linseed plants can grow up to a metre tall but height is normally controlled to about 50cm.  Linseed produces very pretty, light blue flowers.

Start of Soil Structure Survey

August 26, 2009

Whilst not the top of the list of topics to talk about in the pub or at the dinner table, soil structure and organic matter content are vital parts of successful arable farm.  For hundreds of years this farm has used the plough to turn over soil prior to establishing a crop and it has proved highly successful.  Ploughing buries crop residue and weed seeds, removes ruts and compaction and releases nitrates which help the new crop to grow.  However with the rise of the price of diesel and steel, ploughing is now quite an expensive option so many farmers have moved to, or experimented with, ‘min-till‘ or ‘no-till‘ techniques.  As I have mentioned in a previous blog we bought a Claydon Direct Drill last year so have exactly one years experience of not ploughing but drilling directly into stubble.  One claimed benefit is that yields should not drop or possibly even increase.

I will post the results at the end of the harvest ! In addition non inversion tillage (not turning soil over) should increase surface organic matter and worm numbers.  Organic Matter levels are hard to measure so I thought it would be easier to monitor worm type and levels.  Dr Nancy Oakes has kindly agreed to do an informal study and visited the combine on August 14th to see how things were going and talk about how to start studying soil structure and worm levels when drilling starts in a few weeks.  We will also compare the results with fields that have been planting after the plough.

First Year of Claydon Drill

August 16, 2009

In Autumn2008 we took the plunge and purchased a Claydon Drill.  The move from using a plough and powerharrow/drill combination to Direct Drilling was quite a radical step not least because the previous attempt at Direct Drilling in the 1970’s was not successful (as my father has pointed out on more than one occasion).  The move to Direct Drilling was partly due to reduce the number of field operations and thereby lowering costs but also an attempt to improve soil structure.  The farm is predominately heavy clay and any machinery passing over the soil will cause compaction.  Compaction will often lead to water logged soils and poor root penetration and result in a loss of yield.  The theory is that by avoiding ploughing and breaking down the soil with a power harrow, the Direct Drill will allow the soil to ’self structure’. However I don’t know if that theory works in practice.  I hope to monitor the soil structure and compare it with fields prepared under the old system to see if there is a difference. Ultimately the test will be crop yield.  If the yield of wheat harvested in lower under the Direct Drill system then the benefits of a reduced number of machinery passes or improved soil structure will not be sustainable.

We started the wheat harvest yesterday and have combined 2 fields, one established by Direct Drilling and one by ploughing and then using a powerharrow / combination drill.  Both fields were planted to a wheat variety called ‘Battalion’, both were second wheats and both yielded 3.3 tonnes / acre.  Clearly not a scientific study but an encouraging result!!

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