No-till approach delivers soil health and savings A switch to a zero-till system from minimum tillage is paying dividends for a Staffordshire-based grower in terms of cost and environmental savings. Dominic Kilburn reports on how the business is changing and also on the key findings from a wheat fungicide trial which took place on the farm earlier this year.
p A John Deere 750A no-till drill is used to establish most of the crops at TWB Farms. t Staffordshire farmer Clive Bailye.
Staffordshire farmer Clive Bailye is in no doubt why he moved his farming business from a minimum tillage establishment regime to one of zero tillage. A chance to reduce labour and capital expenditure costs across a large combinable crop operation was incentive enough, however six years on after making the “leap of faith” the business is reaping the rewards in other ways too. TWB Farms based at Hammerwich, near Lichfield is an all-arable business with a mix of owned, FBT and contract farmed land. Winter combinable crops include wheat (all milling) and barley in the main, and a small area of oilseed rape, while several spring crops are grown including linseed, oats, beans, millet, soya and peola (spring oilseed rape and peas). In addition, TWB Farms operates a haulage and storage enterprise. According to Clive, who is a partner in the enterprise with his father, one of his key aims a number of years ago was to create a business that could remain profitable without subsidy. “Before we made the change to zero-till, for 18 years we operated a classic min-till system that prevails on most arable farms in the UK. And, maybe because we had that previous
experience, it meant that the change to zero-till wasn’t such a leap. “But having made that change, I’ve found it has delivered us huge cost savings,” he adds. The farm is made up of predominantly light soils which are drought prone, and the entire acreage (several thousand acres) is managed with two full-time staff. Key machinery includes just two 220hp tractors, a combine with a 12m header, a selfpropelled sprayer and a John Deere
“Key to our system is that we always have something growing in every field, all of the time, and this brings cover crops into play,” says Clive.
750A no-till drill. The rotation focus is on maximising the margin potential of Group 1 wheats (which typically yield between 8.5–9t/ha), although cropping choices are “opportunistic” and based on land available and markets at the time, he highlights. The business operates a basic set of rules that ensures 30–40
per cent of land is put into spring crops each year, and that there are no second cereals. “Key to our system is that we always have something growing in every field, all of the time, and this brings cover crops into play,” says Clive. “These are grazed off in the winter by sheep that are brought in from Wales and this, along with the high percentage of spring crops grown, has contributed to raising soil organic matter levels across the farm,” he explains. “These break crops are increasing the soil’s health – a function that is, generally speaking, being lost today. My belief is that we need to be farming somewhere between conventional and organic,” says Clive, who adds that “the soil is our most important asset and the key aim must be to increase soil organic matter.” Clive is adamant that his zerotillage approach to crop establishment, as well as achieving big capital expenditure savings for the business, has also played a key part in the improvement in soil health and quality over the past few seasons; worm numbers and sizes have increased considerably “as you might find in your vegetable garden at home”, along with noticeable improvements in structure and trafficability. “We haven’t had a plough on the farm for years and I don’t believe it can be a good thing to upset the microbiology of the soil each season by going through it with deep cultivations.” Clive suggests that healthy soils with good levels of organic matter go hand-in-hand in growing healthy plants that are better able withstand attack by pests and diseases. Over the past three seasons, insecticides have not been used on wheat and none have received a seed treatment. Some break crops have received an insecticide spray but only two or three times in the past five years, he suggests. “Since changing to zero-till we have been able to reduce insecticide use and we have found that the less we use them, the less we seem to need them. “There is some evidence that zero-till has a negative affect on aphids but I think it’s the fact that our crops are healthier and stronger in resisting attack and that our system encourages beneficials,” he points out. “BYDV, cabbage stem flea beetle and slugs are not an issue here and I think that preserving the environment for beneficials is helping nature re-balance things and, to some extent, managing these issues itself.”
In addition, Clive says that following several years of operating the zero-till system, the aim is to steadily reduce annual nitrogen applications to wheat down from the current 180kg/ha. “Zero-till works for us here on our light land but I know of many growers on heavy land are also making it happen – you can find a system that will work on all soil types. “It’s a question of being much more management focused and perhaps re-inventing yourself with a change of mind-set. You’ve got to be prepared to learn and travel, and, if I’m honest, sometimes fail. “In essence, the farm’s weighbridge is probably my most important tool,” sums up Clive. “It proves to me what works on the farm – that the inputs, the machinery, labour and overall approach to managing the business are right.”
Worm numbers and sizes have increased considerably on the farm since the switch to zero-till.
Fungicides on test As well as running a busy farming enterprise in Staffordshire, Clive Bailye is also the founder of The Farming Forum – an on-line discussion platform for farmers in the UK, and from around the world, to communicate and exchange ideas and points of view. Recent discussions and debate on the website, he says, have been against a back-drop of low crop prices and the inevitable need for farmers to cut back on spend in order to improve already tight margins. “I’ve done that with my business by adopting a zero-till approach and I’m not the kind of person happy to spend money on ‘Rolls Royce’ products and assume that I will get my money back! “All products being sold to farmers come with the claim that they will provide the user with an advantage over competitor products, but they can’t all be right and so I like to draw my own conclusions by testing products on my farm under the conditions we have here, much like a grower choosing a new piece of continued over...
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