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User story: Organic matter preservation drives drill choice

After several years of experimentation, one Northumberland farm has settled on a drilling regime which suites its soils and farming principals. James Rickard gets a user’s view of a Sumo DTS drill.

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A Sumo DTS drill offers New Etal Farm crop establishment flexibility.

DTS4 specifications

  • Working width: 4m
  • Transport width: 2.8m
  • Total hopper capacity: 3,000 litres
  • Row spacing: 333mm
  • Number of rows: 12

Aiming to improve organic matter conservation, as well as ease workload, drill choice at New Etal Farm has received close attention, with several years trialling various concepts.

 

Based near Cornhill on Tweed, Northumberland, the farm has been headed up by farm manager Paul Turner for the last four years. Totalling 506 hectares (1,250 acres), 344 hectares (850 acres) is put down to crops with the remainder permanent pasture which is leased for grazing. Winter wheat makes up half of the cropping, with one quarter oil seed rape and the remaining quarter split equally between peas, beans and barley. Soils range from heavy clay to blow away sand.

 

With chopped straw and stubble the only source of organic matter, preserving as much of it as possible is a big priority for Mr Turner. “Unlike many of the mixed farms in the area which have a ready supply of muck from their livestock, we have to make the most of what we have got.”

Paul Turner.

And this has meant a long quest to find the right drilling/tillage regime. The farm had traditionally been a big user of the plough and power harrow, and latterly minimum tillage. But with rising input costs, ever shrinking working windows and lack of readily available organic matter, something had to change.

 

The farm’s first foray away from an intensive tillage system began seven years ago which came in the form of a strip-tillage drill from Mzuri. “This showed the farm it was on the right path towards reducing establishment costs, while improving soil structure.”

 

Five years later, the next logical move was to take what they had learnt a step further with the introduction of a tine-based direct drill. However, this proved to be one step too far, as Mr Turner explains. “We tried direct drilling for two years, however, it left too much compaction and disturbed the surface too much. It also left emerging crops exposed to cold easterly winds.”

The Orga metering system.

The eventual conclusion was to take a step back and return to the strip-tillage technique. After extensive research, based on both agronomy arguments and the machine’s capability, Mr Turner settled on a Sumo DTS4, strip-tillage drill which arrived on-farm for the 2016 drilling campaign.

 

Flexibility was a big draw to the DTS, says Mr Turner. “The machine has the ability to establish both grain and fertiliser, it can establish cover crops just using the seed boots, and its 33cm row spacing and adjustable cultivating tines allows every other row to be used to plant oil seed rape. “Particularly for OSR, outside of the root zone, we want to disturb the ground as little as possible. And at 66cm row spacing, light interception is greatly improved, which in turn lets in the warmth – something which is limited in Northumberland.”

 

At first, Mr Turner was sceptical about Sumo’s Orga metering system, which uses an auger to meter seed and fertiliser. “I’m very confident in it now, and it can comfortably handle wheat seed rates of 200kg/hectare and OSR rates of 3kg/hectare.”

Band sowing took some getting used to says Mr Turner.

Electrically driven, the Orga metering unit is controlled via an RDS Artemis system, which is also compatible with AgLeader’s control box for variable rate application.

 

As soon as crops began to emerge, we could see the benefits of returning back to the strip-tillage method. “The DTS creates a good seedbed in the root zone, with an impressive shattering effect from the cultivating tines. In heavy clay, the finish can get a bit knobbly, though.”

 

With the strip-till system, Mr Turner also notes a much better use of available nutrients and water. "Organic nitrogen is also used more evenly, not broken down all at once as with other systems, which can occur after cultivation. This has allowed us to cut back nitrogen use by about 10 per cent, reduced to 200kg/ha.”

 

He adds; “The main thing which takes a bit of getting used too, particularly as crops emerge, is the band sowing concept from the seed boots. But I’m quite happy to put up with it when you see the results.”

Along with stubble, all chopped straw is retained to preserve as much organic matter as possible.

Seed is distributed across the width of the seed boot. Fertiliser is applied to all crops, which is placed just behind the seed boot, in the centre of the seed band.

 

In the future, Mr Turner would like to add variable rate seed control to the drill, to compensate for the changing soil types. “A seed counting system would also be a good future option, making calibration easier and giving more reassurance especially when making the switch to vari-rate.”

 

Along with the chopped straw, stubbles are also left in place. “We generally don’t do any other cultivating operations prior to drilling, but we do spray everything. “Leaving stubbles in place helps create a micro climate and keeps the wind chill off, which helps with wind and water erosion. The previous crop’s root structure also benefits soil structure.”

 

“We also intend to experiment with taller stubble heights, which would leave less trash on the floor, taking less time to break down.”

Cover crops are also established with the DTS.

Mr Turner had an initial concern over the DTS’s ability to cope with trash. “After some minor adjustment to the cutting discs’ angle, this has since been improved, and the drill seems to be coping well.”

 

“With the direct tine drill, we suffered a lot with slugs. Although it is too early to tell, we are hoping black beetle numbers will improve with less disturbance of the soil," he adds. “We do apply slug pellets a couple of days after drilling and we roll the ground tight at a steady speed of 6kph.”

 

Drilling widows consist of August for rape, early September for wheat and barley, then the rest in spring. Mr Turner says; “Drilling close behind the combine gives the weeds some competition. “Weeds have certainly become easier to control compared to minimum tillage.”

 

To help with weed control, along with nitrogen fixing and soil structure, all spring crops are preceded with a cover crop - a mix of oil radish, black oats and phacelia. “It’s a mix which allows weeds to germinate, making them easier to kill.”

About 9kph is the ideal working speed, says Mr Turner.

Mr Turner pulls the DTS with a 165hp (200hp boosted) Case IH Puma 165, which he says manages it fine on the rolling hills around Cornhill on Tweed, even on the stiffest clay. “Drill speed is kept at around 9kph, which keeps soil ‘bursting’ and disturbance to a minimum. Cutting discs in front of the cultivating tines also help to achieve this.”

 

He adds, when in work, the layout of the drill sees half its weight placed on the rear of the tractor, helping traction, and half the weight placed on the cultivating and drilling elements, aiding penetration.

 

The plough has not been completely retired at New Etal Farm, which is mainly used for establishing the farm’s crop of winter barley, which follows wheat. “As well as providing a bit of an insurance policy, long term, it is also a useful tool for unlocking nutrients in the soil.”

From front to back; the drilling units consist of an opening disc, a cultivator tine, a seed/fertiliser boot, cover wheels and depth/consolidation wheels.

From a maintenance stance, the DTS has very little to worry about, says Mr Turner. “Back up from Sumo has been good too, who are always on-hand to help with set-up. “It’s layout took a bit of getting used to as it is quite a long machine – I would like its cameras moving so I could see more of the tine area.

 

Quality of wearing metal is impressive, which still looks like new after 344 hectares (850 acres). “It was a two year old demonstrator, with all the recent modifications, when I got it, and I’d hope the drill would last 10 years,” says Mr Turner.

 

“So far, the drill has proved itself in a variety of conditions, and is definitely helping us cling onto that all important organic matter. At the end of the day, we have to farm to suit our conditions and situation, and the DTS helps us do this.”

New Etal Farm cropping

  • Total farm size: 506 hectares (1,250 acres)
  • Cropped area: 344 hectares (850 acres)
  • Winter: 172 hectares (425 acres)
  • Oil seed rape: 86 hectares (213 acres)
  • Peas: 28 hectares (69 acres)
  • Beans: 28 hectares (69 acres)
  • Barley: 28 hectares (69 acres)
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