Effective management of black-grass is a major issue for many farmers, but low disturbance drilling is proving a useful weapon against the prolific weed.
Grass-weeds are becoming one of the biggest threats to arable farmers across the country – with black-grass alone capable of causing losses over two tonnes/ha, according to AHDB.
However, with innovation in technology evolving daily, could technological developments to farm kit be the long-awaited remedy to yield-stripping weeds? Farming 1,214 hectares in Lincolnshire, Keith Challen, farm manager at Belvoir Fruit Farms, has added an Amazone drill to his armoury for tackling black-grass.
He says: “I came to the farm seven years ago, and while they had been running a minimum tillage system for a long time, there was a serious black-grass problem.”
Finding themselves at a cross roads in terms of weed control, the farm set about a number of solutions to prevent the onset of black-grass germination, including the introduction of spring cropping to the rotation, delaying drilling and making changes to machinery and operations.
“We found where there were high levels of compaction, the black-grass population was worse, so we knew changes had to be implemented to manage this,” explains Mr Challen.
“We made a move to shallow cultivations and introduced a 12m controlled traffic system. By managing harvest traffic – using GPS – tramlines are in the same place every time, alleviating compaction.”
The farm also discovered high levels of disturbance from previous drills was respon-sible for black-grass seeds germinating deep beneath the soil.
“The old drills moved a lot of soil and, although pre-emergent herbicides controlled a lot of the surface populations, we believe this allowed a chink of daylight to reach deep black-grass and encourage weed growth.”
As the farm was already running on 36m tramlines and wanted to minimise disruption to the soil, deciding on the type of drill to use was simple, recalls Mr Challen.
“I wanted something that could drill nutrients at the same time – the Amazone Citan drill was the only one that ordered all of that, so we purchased it ready for the 2016 drilling season.”
The benefit of having such a wide drill means the physical sowing hours are minimised, giving a flexible drilling window and the ability to delay drilling due to faster fieldwork. “With 97% of the land on heavy clay soils, drilling had always predominantly been done early on in the season, increasing the risk of black-grass populations,” says Mr Challen.
“However, the introduction of controlled tra c has also made drilling later in the season much more viable.
“Drilling later means more black-grass is germinating in the stale seedbed, giving us much more of a chance to tackle it. Before, we were always dictated by the weather but now we are able to treat each block of land on an individual basis,” he adds.
The new drill also allows Mr Challen to put a starter fertiliser next to the seed, to promote root growth in the autumn. “With the combination of our heavy soils and drilling later in the year, we wanted to give the crop the best chance of getting away quicker in the spring,” he explains.
“When we drill oilseed rape, we drill the seed with diammonium phosphate so as soon as it germinates it picks up the nutrients.” Interestingly, this has promoted crop growth so much it has also alleviated a pest issue.
“We had a problem with pigeons , however, we are now getting such a big biomass on the crop in the winter that it helps prevent damage.” Of course, the bottom line is, has a simple machinery change successfully tackled blackgrass problems? The simple answer is, yes. “We have seen an 80% reduction in blackgrass populations,” says Mr Challen.
“The farm has gone from losing 2t/ha in the worst affected elds to now being hand roguable in many places. There is now only one block of land where black-grass is still yield affecting.” the shift in tactics has also been financially bene cial to the farm, with savings in labour and fixed costs.
“Since we made the changes we lost one member of staff , but have not had to replace them as drilling is much less time consuming, and we have gone from running two tractors to one. We now get our wheat drilled in about 60 hours, reducing fixed costs by about £30/ha.”
However, changes to farming practices is just one part of a much bigger picture. “There is not just one silver bullet for tackling black-grass,” says Mr Challen.
“We have also just invested in Syngenta’s new seed dressing –which produces crops with a greater root mass. As well as the potential yield benefit, this also makes wheat crops more competitive against black-grass.” With black-grass becoming a widescale problem, more and more arable farmers are interested in utilising the available technology.
“We have hosted controlled trac meetings and a lot of people have been out to the farm to see the drill working – there is a lot of buzz around it,” adds Mr Challen.
“To have a sustainable future we have got to embrace technology. It is fundamental for managing costs and helping us to remain competitive.
“Technology maximises efficiency and helps bring down fixed costs, which all adds to the bottom line.
We have never been as profitable. It adds a real sense of security against market volatility.”
For those thinking about making changes to their system and practices; do not be frightened to have a go, says Mr Challen.
“Too often, people carry on with what they have always done as there is security in knowing it works, but there are lots of options out there.”
So what is next for the farm?
“It is a very exciting time for farming and technology. Drone technology will be very interesting, particularly with developments to live imaging. We are also doing trials with amino acids and looking into advances with biotechnology products.”
While implementing the changes has been a time-consuming project, the staff have reaped the rewards of their hard labour, he adds.
“It took five years to get a project together, but we are really pleased with the results, it has been revolutionary for the farm.”
Simon Brown, brand manager at Amazone, says the Citan drill was designed initially with growers in mind who have vast amounts of ground to cover very quickly.
“The ideology behind the drill has actually been around for some time and, while farmers in the UK were still using more traditional cultivation practices, the Citan has been used extensively by farmers in drier parts of the world, such as Russia and Kazakhstan, where low disturbance kit is used regularly to preserve soil moisture,” he explains.
“However, together with a demand to place nutrients down the spout with the seed, and the need for arable farming in the UK to drill later and move less soil, it has become a far more practical tool.”
So what is the driving force behind the adoption of this technology? Grassweed control, says Mr Brown.
“Farmers are now much more focused on creating a stale seedbed, post-combine, to tackle grass-weeds. If you manage to get surface weeds under control, the last thing you want to do is stir up the soil, hence the need for low disturbance drills.”
Of course, adopting such technology can help the industry work toward the ultimate goal of increased sustainability.
“If we allow black-grass to take over without changing our ways, farming very soon becomes unpro table – simple changes to systems can really maximise economics,” adds Mr Brown.