Cover crops are providing an increasingly more important source of organic matter for Kent grower Guy Eckley, which sit neatly into a CTF and direct drill strategy. Geoff Ashcroft reports.
With the desire to manage soils more efficiently, Kent grower Guy Eckley has recently added cover crops to his rotation, while keeping kit on a controlled traffic grid to minimise disruption to soil structure.
However, this simplistic approach as taken some managing at Eckley Farms, Staplehurst, and has also resulted in some tough machinery buying choices too.
He explains; “We’ve not moved much soil about since the late 1990’s, which soon revealed the benefits of keeping tilth in one place rather than having to start making new seedbeds every year. Soil does do a good job of repairing itself, if you give it a chance.”
Kent farmer guy Eckley is pleased with the integration of cover crops at Eckley Farms.
Eckley Farms currently handles a 600 hectare (1,480 acre) workload across four blocks of land, spread over an eight-mile radius of Staplehurst. Soil types vary from green sands to loam and weald clay – the latter is one Guy Eckley does not want to bash about unnecessarily.
“To make the most of yield potential and manage weed incidence, we’ve been gradually heading towards a controlled traffic grid that also involves direct drilling, along with an increasing reliance on cover crops,” he says.
“We do like the Horsch tine drill, and having replaced an old CO for a 4m Sprinter, we created a drilling system that could work in almost all conditions. But every time we moved the soil, we’d encourage the wrong things to grow.”
“We also had fields sitting empty over winter, waiting to be planted with spring crops,” he says. “And rather than let Mother Nature fill the voids with unwanted weeds, we thought that Pedders mix might be worth a try in a small area.”
Based on that small trial, he has increased the cover crop area year-on-year. Now in his fifth year of cover cropping, Mr Eckley says 25 to 40 per cent of the 600ha (1,480 acre) farm will be sown to cover crops each autumn.
The farm’s Horsch Sprinter 4 ST was widened slightly to suit a 4.4m CTF grid……
“Half the farm is wheat and everything else is break crop,” he says. “This includes between 50-150 hectares (123-371 acres) of winter oilseed rape plus spring sown beans, barley, wheat and oats. And all our spring-sown crops are preceded by cover crops.”
“We do have a flexible approach when it comes to our rotation and things have been known to change at the last minute, depending on the season.”
Rather than opt for off-the-shelf cover crop mixes, he, and a small group of neighbouring farmers, have developed their own complex mix of cover crop seeds.
He reasons that different soil types across the farm combined with changing topography means a diverse mix of seeds will naturally compensate when one of the other seed types dies off.
“There is always something in the cover crop mix that will pick up the slack when one other crop type dies back in the winter,” he says. “And an added advantage of such a mix means should that season’s conditions not suit one component of the mix, something else, other than weeds, will fill its place.”
…..while the secondhand 6m John Deere 750A was cut down accordingly.
When it comes to drilling, he no longer relies solely on the Sprinter with its low disturbance points. Mr Eckley now has the additional choice of a John Deere 750A.
“Our goal was to steer the farm into CTF and direct-drill strategies, so we could reduce compaction, cut costs and improve soil health,” he says. “And the two drills give flexibility with min-till and zero-till methods.”
While Mr Eckley is a fan of the Horsch, despite its use becoming less and less frequent, he is less complimentary about the 750A.
“The 750A is a complex piece of kit with some serious running costs,” he says. “But the results from direct drilling into cover crops speak for themselves. It has the advantage of disturbing much less soil than the Horsch, which means fewer weeds germinate.”
“We have carried out lots of field trials using both drills to see what works best and in what conditions, and we’ve direct drilled almost as successfully with the Sprinter as we have with the 750A,” he says. “But we do establish far cleaner crops when using the 750A simply because of the disc coulters.”
Root structure and soil health is improving for Eckley Farms.
While the two systems give him options, he says that the reduction in seedbed preparation and the lower establishment cost of direct-drilled, spring-sown crops has enabled the farm to invest further in cover cropping.
He says all his cover crops are lightly grazed by sheep until the end of January, after which soils are left to recover. The remaining cover crop is sprayed off before the 750A puts in spring crops in a one-pass process.
“Livestock helps to convert plant matter into manure, so we’re trying to advance the nitrogen cycle,” he says. “Our soil structure continues to improve and we’re happy with the progress, even if we’re carrying out our own research as we go.”
Mr Eckley does report an improvement in soil structure, plus better aeration through increased worm activity and biodiversity. He says that trash contributes to better surface water retention, plus a reduction in run-off.
“It is becoming clearer that our system is leading us towards better blackgrass management too.”
The farm’s CTF system revolves around a 9m combine header working at 8.8m. The two drills are modified to achieve 4.4m working widths and the farm’s 27m sprayer needs only one nozzle on either end of the boom to work as a section. This affords a 26.4m CTF grid.
Eckley Farms has had success with companion cropping – this mix of spring wheat and peas was separated in the grain store post-harvest.
All straw is chopped and spread, enabling organic matter to be put back into the soil.
Though the two drilling systems give him options, he says that reducing autumn cultivations has enabled the farm to cut back on inputs.
“Money saved on autumn seedbed preparation and establishment costs from switching to direct-drilled, spring-sown crops has enabled us to invest in cover cropping,” he says.
Mr Eckley urges other growers to be brave, and to try small areas in fields or half-field scale trials to see what could work for them.
“We carried out lots of field trials with both drills to see what worked best and in what conditions,” he says. “We have direct drilled successfully with the Sprinter. And our use of cover crops is helping to put more organic matter and different plant biology back into our soils.”