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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: Waiting until conditions are right

It is amazing how just a couple of dry days can make the farm look totally different. We have not been as wet as many in the West but it seems to have been a long, stormy winter.

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Talking Arable with Jim Bullock: Waiting until conditions are right #talkingarable

We are still recovering from the most recent storm (Imogen), which deposited 55mm of rain on us over 24 hours. It’s safe to say the land is at field capacity, so there is no prospect of any early drilled spring crops.

 

As ever I am pleased we resisted the temptation to cultivate our stubbles in the autumn prior to spring cropping. The mild winter has meant our earthworms have been busy incorporating a large proportion of the chopped straw and their burrows have helped no end with the surface drainage.

 

I am confident we will be able to direct drill a large proportion of our spring crops but we will have to be patient and wait until conditions are right, which will be a challenge when our neighbours are busy cultivating and drilling and we are still on yard duties.

 

We do have a small area of the farm which we spring crop after herbs which we have to plough so I will not have to go completely ‘cold turkey’.

 

The early part of the year has been filled with various meetings extolling the necessity to increase fungicide inputs and up fertiliser inputs to maximise yield. Is that really a good idea when wheat prices are struggling to stay in three figures? Surely we need to look at margins not yields?

 

Which brings me on neatly to the recent BASE-UK AGM, when we had a fascinating day, listening to presentations from UK farmers who have embraced conservation agriculture, as well as the Swiss researcher Dr Wolfgang Sturny who has been running a 20-year comparison/trial between ploughing and direct drilling.

 

My take-home message was we have been taking part in a 60-year industrial farming trial which is now running out of steam.

 

Our machinery is getting ever bigger as a result of ‘spread sheet farming’; international trading in commodities being a driver hence low prices, but perhaps subsidies have pushed up land costs encouraging the need for scale.

 

The overall effect has been our soils are becoming degraded and we have uncontrollable weeds, diseases and now pests due to a lack of diversity in our crop rotations.

 

So what is the answer? There is no blueprint; it’s a matter of working with nature and not against it and adapting to conditions.

 

Dr Sturny has no problem with ploughing but says it needs to be shallow (120-150mm) with the tractor running out of the furrow. His work has shown yields from direct drilled crops easily match those of ploughed.

 

Having gone through what he called the transition phase (seven years) he is now able to cut nitrogen rates by 30% which, if you are concerned about energy inputs, has a far greater impact than cutting out a few litres of tractor diesel doing a few cultivations.

 

With 20 years’ experience under his belt he had a few tips which could well mean the difference between success and failure, such as glyphosate timing: if it’s cold and wet you need at least 20 days between spraying and drilling.

 

Axle weights ought to be kept to below five tonnes if you are not going to damage soil structure.

 

The presentations from the UK growers all stressed the need for crop diversity and continuous ground cover with a living crop, be it a cash crop or a cover crop.

 

There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter and various forums about what should be used as a cover crop and the consensus is so long as there is something growing it benefits the soil.

 

Which brings me on neatly to the recent BASE-UK AGM, when we had a fascinating day, listening to presentations from UK farmers who have embraced conservation agriculture, as well as the Swiss researcher Dr Wolfgang Sturny who has been running a 20-year comparison/trial between ploughing and direct drilling.

 

My take-home message was we have been taking part in a 60-year industrial farming trial which is now running out of steam.

 

Our machinery is getting ever bigger as a result of ‘spread sheet farming’; international trading in commodities being a driver hence low prices, but perhaps subsidies have pushed up land costs encouraging the need for scale.

 

The overall effect has been our soils are becoming degraded and we have uncontrollable weeds, diseases and now pests due to a lack of diversity in our crop rotations.

 

So what is the answer? There is no blueprint; it’s a matter of working with nature and not against it and adapting to conditions.

 

Dr Sturny has no problem with ploughing but says it needs to be shallow (120-150mm) with the tractor running out of the furrow. His work has shown yields from direct drilled crops easily match those of ploughed.

 

Having gone through what he called the transition phase (seven years) he is now able to cut nitrogen rates by 30% which, if you are concerned about energy inputs, has a far greater impact than cutting out a few litres of tractor diesel doing a few cultivations.

 

With 20 years’ experience under his belt he had a few tips which could well mean the difference between success and failure, such as glyphosate timing: if it’s cold and wet you need at least 20 days between spraying and drilling.

 

Axle weights ought to be kept to below five tonnes if you are not going to damage soil structure.

 

The presentations from the UK growers all stressed the need for crop diversity and continuous ground cover with a living crop, be it a cash crop or a cover crop.

 

There has been a lot of discussion on Twitter and various forums about what should be used as a cover crop and the consensus is so long as there is something growing it benefits the soil.

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