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Talking Arable with Sophie Alexander: Contemplating the min-till challenge

At the risk of making life a bit too exciting, it adds interest and potential benefits to have on-farm trials. For me, 2018 is ‘attempt min-till year’. Not an earth shattering ambition (pun not intended, but irresistible), you might be thinking, but it is plenty challenge enough in an organic rotation.

It is estimated about 32% of arable land in the UK is established by reduced tillage. I have read that for purists, only zero tillage really counts. For them, min-till is just inversion by another name. Well, us min-till novices have to start somewhere.

 

Yesterday I gave a tour of the farm to 29 astute and well informed agricultural students from Germany. Their most insistent questions were to understand how farming in the UK will manage after Brexit. Having hosted an NFU meeting to discuss just that with our constituency MP today, I suggest most of us are still floundering in the mystery. The students identified one practice as being unusual in the UK, but commonplace in Germany; the use of local co-operative farming organisations and the close collaboration between producer groups. Something Defra’s ‘health and harmony’ document is advocating we do more of.

 

Returning back to my minimum tillage ambitions, reducing field operations could be one component of my Brexit survival kit. In our usual rotation of three-year grazing leys followed by three years cropping, we currently plough four times in six years. If we can manage to reduce this to only ploughing out the three-year leys, i.e. once in six years, although twice is probably more realistic, it could save some £52/hectare (£21/acre). Add to this the well-proven soil and environmental benefits. Whether these advantages would be nullified by a surge in weed burden and consequent costs is as yet unknown. There is encouraging evidence the opposite might be true as we will cease to bring the seed bank repeatedly back to the surface.

 

If there was one magic solution to weed control in an organic system, we would all be using it. Instead, a multi-faceted approach is required. I am optimistic one of our most effective weed reduction tactics is to open sieves on the combine so seed standing in the crop at the time of harvest is removed from the field. This is possible because the weed seed is separated out by a rotary cleaning system immediately after the grain is taken into store. We have had the facility for only three years, so it will be a few more seasons before we can assess whether it is making a significant difference.

 

Weed and volunteer control is the critical first stage in preparing the designated 8ha (20-acre) field for my new min-till adventure. The secret weapon is 198 pregnant Lleyn ewes. These provide a vital field operation by grazing the overwinter vetch-ryegrass cover crop as hard as possible. Sheep and cattle are an integral part of our arable operations, as they help control weeds, supply added fertility and an income from the three years of herbal grazing leys. After sheep, we will spread 30 tonnes/ha of well humified, aerobically prepared compost. The 8.7-metre Vaderstad Swift fitted with 120mm duck foot tines will min-till at an angle to the line of drilling.

 

Besides my recurring nightmare of residual ryegrass overtaking the Westminster barley crop in the min-till field, my other favourite current anxiety is the threat of gout fly in late drilled wheat. I am hoping the gout fly is feeling delayed by snow and rain. Its usual time of attack is May/June. Normally the wheat is drilled by mid-March and advanced enough to escape the larvae. The alternative defence is to rely on gout fly’s natural predators being alive and busy in the organic system.


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