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Ultra-low disturbance methods help cut costs and increase black-grass control

Innovation from New Zealand has helped Oxfordshire farmer James Alexander control black-grass and cut costs on farm. Georgina Haigh finds out more. 

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Father and son team Paul and James Alexander are pioneers in their approach to arable farming.


The pair were first to bring cross slot drill technology to the UK 10 years ago and, such has been their success, there are now four machines operating across the country, all of which can be traced back to the Oxfordshire family.


After James finished his degree in agriculture and business management at Writtle College, Essex, he and Paul became interested in New Zealand’s ultra-low disturbance methods.


The cross slot drill, was at the core of these methods and, although they had an idea how to use it, they only introduced it on-farm after Paul went to see it in action in New Zealand.


In 2004, the family invested £60,000 into a cross slot drill with the intention to set up a contracting business while highlighting the machine’s benefits to other potential buyers.


James says: “We started with the intention of contracting and selling lots of drills, but it did not work out because of its cost and the fact people were not adapting to the [cross slot] methods.”

Brash soils

Soon after James bought the drill, he was offered a farming contract on Glebe Farm, Enstone - an 81 hectare (200-acre) conventional holding on Cotswold brash soils.


Since then, a further 320ha (800 acres) of organic arable land has been taken on, bringing his total contract-farmed area to 400ha (1,000 acres).


Inevitably different techniques are needed to manage weeds on the organic system, but James says he is always trying to find ways to fit the cross slot into the organic system.


As the technology is new to the UK, it has taken a while for growers to adopt the necessary techniques but, after recent orders, James confirms there will be 14 cross slot machines in the country by autumn this year.


Aside from cutting down on machinery cost or use, James has made considerable savings at Glebe Farm since adopting the cross slot method.


An average saving of £32/ha (£13/acre) has been made as the soil has not required phosphorus for the past eight years, saving a total of about £20,000.


James says these savings have been made as the conservation methods he now uses have helped the soil biology to work better.


“The soil organisms are now releasing P and K, whereas they were just locked up when the soil was not working properly.


“There are lots of worms and bugs in our soils, so the soil biology is working with us, rather than against us.”


Nitrogen and sulphur are applied little and often, as a mix in 100kg batches.


“It is now feeding the crop, rather than dumping and losing it,” he adds.


James says the drill also helps preserve moisture, which is important as his soils are prone to drought.


Although variable from year to year, herbicide applications have not been needed in the past, which has also helped cut costs.


In the 2012/13 season he was able to cut Atlantis WG (mesosulfuron + iodosulfuron) out of his winter wheat herbicide programme, saving about £37/ha (£15/acre).


James says: “Because our methods are ultra-low disturbance we are not encouraging weeds to grow or germinate. The weeds are not growing, so we do not have to spray.”


In the same season, he also only applied two pre-emergence sprays which made the total cost spent on his herbicide programme just £55/ha (£22/acre), while still achieving control of problematic weeds.


The following season, cutting an application of Kerb (propyzamide) from his OSR herbicide programme saved about £40/ha (£16/acre).


Control is now relatively simple, but when James took over the conventional block of land in 2007 it had been left for about five years as set-aside and the fields were initially 80 per cent black-grass.


“The fields were sprayed off and drilled with a mustard cover crop in May. The first wheat crops drilled in those fields were only treated with a standard herbicide programme.”


He believes this success was down to the cross slot system.


Average cereal yields are about 7.41 tonnes/ha (3t/acre) and OSR is about 3.9t/ha (1.6t/acre) on conventionally farmed crops.


James says: “Our yields are similar to our neighbours’ but we even out the dips and do not suffer lower yields in bad years.


“The soil biology is working, and [crops] have good establishment with less stress.


“We can travel when we want and, as a result, our timings are better and our yields, more consistent. The natural soil is strong enough to withstand any weight as the soils are settled.”


Successful establishment is represented in his crops and James plans to cut seed rates because establishment levels are so high.


The drill also helps preserve moisture, he says.


Originally, OSR was sown at 40 seeds/sq.m but James plans to cut the seed rate to 20 seeds/sq.m in autumn this year.


He says: “We are getting 100 per cent germination because we are sowing into a nice organic layer, and getting full establishment. We can afford to cut seed rates.”


James believes OSR crops will be healthier and bigger, because they will have more space to grow.


James now hopes to continue increasing his contracting and cross slot business to a wider audience.


How the Cross Slot works

A straight disc leads the seed opener, and cuts a slot through the surface which gives the germinating crop an easy route to the surface.


This slot also acts as a drainage channel.


Using a straight disc allows the no-till system to drill straight into cover crops, cope with large amounts of trash and residues and does not suffer from hair-pinning.


The seed opener runs against the disc and creates a shelf within clean soil below the surface, immediately adjacent to the slot cut by the disc. Seed is placed so soil sits above and below it in a layered construction.


Press wheels then firm soil around the seed, and sowing depth is adjustable by altering the pressure applied to the press wheels.


The cross slot no-till system is claimed to reduce the risk of compaction, while its long-term benefits are said to include an improvement in soil structure, soil moisture, drainage and organic content.


It can also allow seed and fertiliser to be placed close together by using an inverted T slot below the surface.


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