The ‘devil is in the detail’ when it comes to using cultural techniques to control black-grass, according to farmer and agronomist David Felce.
He says it is not enough to understand and apply techniques, but critical to have the right equipment, set up properly and used appropriately.
David Felce was raised on the family farm at Midloe Grange, Cambridgeshire. The farm land is Hanslope series chalky boulder clay, overlaid with a clay loam with a mixture of drainage schemes across the farm, but all fields are drained.
Since the 1980s, the 97-hectare farm has been dedicated to arable. Mr Felce took over in the 1990s and it became a Leaf demonstration farm in 2000. This period also proved to be a turning point on the farm. Following some difficult years, Mr Felce reached a contract farming agreement with neighbours M. Ellerbeck, co-working together across some 263ha.
Mr Felce provided agronomic advice and spraying as part of this ‘partnership’ agreement. He also established his own agronomy business advising local farms. In 2015, he joined Agrii as regional technical adviser, although he continues farming at Midloe Grange.
Agrii has pioneered the use of cultural techniques against black-grass at its Stow Longa Technology Centre and Mr Felce has been able to apply these techniques on-farm. He believes the results in the first year look more than promising.
Black-grass has become a real problem and action was clearly required.
Mr Felce says: “Like most people, we were growing two wheats and a rape, but it was a broken system.
“We are now including spring wheat and spring barley. Next year, we will grow winter beans and some rape as breaks, and only first wheats, whereas previously we would have grown two wheats.
“This is mainly driven by black-grass. Regardless of the three-crop rule, we would have still changed the rotation due to black-grass.
This article is the second in a series of three looking at evidence of the spread of black-grass outside traditional areas in the east of England, and how farmers seeing black-grass for the first time can respond.
“We are trying to be more flexible in the way we approach cropping. We do not have a five-year plan of crop rotation as we used to. We take it a year at a time and will change plans if things are not on track.”
‘D-Day’ for a new regime was September last year, following harvest. Stow Longa is close enough for the conditions to be virtually the same in all respects. Now they are seeing whether the principles which have been established over the past 15 years can work on a farm-scale.
Mr Felce says: “What has been identified during the trial period is the importance of adhering to the steps and getting the details right.
“If it is ploughing, it has to be ploughed correctly. “If it is minimum disturbance drilling, the same applies. The detail has to be absolutely nailed down. It is not difficult to understand, but it can be quite difficult to put into practice.
“The most important thing is to follow the principles as closely as possible. This may be achieved with modifications to existing farm equipment.
"However, because Agrii has a long-term relationship with Lemken and, more recently, with Opico, it has given us access to the quality of equipment, correctly set up, that we needed.
“Where a field needed ploughing because of black-grass, our plough was not necessarily doing the job, even if we were doing the right things.
“Through this trial, we have been able to gain access to equipment which would normally not be available to a small farm such as this one.
“If we can prove through this trial these ideas work on a farm-scale, it is not about whether you can afford the machine, but how you make it happen.
“Facilitation will be a key part of the next stage of the project for Agrii. The differences we have seen in just the first year of a three-year project are transformational, which suggests we have to find ways to allow this to happen for other businesses.”
It is the quality of engineering and the thought which has gone into the equipment which Mr Felce believes has made a real difference to results.
He says: “When you look at things such as the setting of skimmers on the plough, it is clear Lemken has put a great deal of thought into getting the small details right.
“If you are going to plough, and push the ‘reset’ button, you want it to work properly, and small details make all the difference.”
Paul Creasy, general manager with Lemken UK, confirms the level of precision which goes into designing and manufacturing its equipment.
Mr Creasy says: “We realise these operations, but particularly ploughing, represent a major investment.
“In the future, if ploughing is only taking place every four or five years, it is critical it is as effective as possible. We do everything we can to ensure our equipment will get the job done right first time.”
Midloe Grange’s problem with black-grass has been increasing. Mr Felce has data from a 2016 field which was first wheat after OSR.
There was a five tonnes/ha disparity between the area of the field which was infected with black-grass and the area which was not.
One area produced 11t/ha and the other only 6t/ha at most.
Mr Felce says: “We ploughed and pressed it with the Lemken EurOpal plough in October, then sprayed it in March and went straight in with the drill with no further cultivation.
“There was no use of residual herbicide. The ploughing, done properly, provides a reset button. Looking at the crop in the field today, I am really pleased with the results and am looking forward to excellent yields right across it.
“The challenge will be to look at what happens in the next three years and what measures we need to maintain soil structure before possibly ploughing again.
“With winter wheat, we will be aiming to get all our primary cultivation completed by the beginning of September before drilling six weeks later.
“In that case, it is critical to get the soil structure work absolutely right at the primary cultivation stage, and to have the tools to do it. This is another area we will be working with Lemken in.
“Agrii has calculated that by ploughing in year one and not ploughing again, there is a £340/ annum improvement in profitability.
“These principles apply on this soil and it may be slightly different on other soils. It is important to have a plan for your own farm and one solution may not suit all.”
For the years in between deep ploughing, Lemken has a wide range of solutions for shallower cultivation, including its Rubin nine- and 12-disc harrows and Karat 9 cultivator. Mr Creasy is keen to emphasise precision engineered solutions can be within the reach of everyone.
He says: “With ploughing happening less often in the rotation, sharing of equipment or contracting becomes a real option.
“We have smaller ploughs which provide the same level of design and set-up and are affordable, given the savings which can be made and the improvements in yield as a result of dealing with black-grass.”