Drill versatility encourages innovative cropping Farmers Guide joined UK farmers at the Sky Agriculture farm in France.
Challenges facing UK farmers include fluctuating margins, reduced numbers of active ingredients and increased herbicide resistance. No one-fits-all solution has been identified so far, but David Williams joined a group of farmers visiting the farm at which Sky Agriculture is based in Brittany, France, to find out how managing director and farmer David Guy tackles similar challenges. Opico began importing Sky’s EasyDrill in 2015, responding to demand from UK growers for a versatile drill capable of establishing crops within all types of cultivation regimes and ground conditions. The EasyDrill is based on the successful Moore drill coulter design with a leading depth gauge wheel, a serrated seeding disc with a skim coulter, followed by two metal press wheels. It is a true minimal disturbance drill with its disc coulter running at just 3.5 degrees to the direction of travel and effective depth control results from the disc coulter's position mid-way between the front gauge, and rear press wheels. Up to 250kg coulter pressure is available, and it can be prioritised to the front wheel, centre disc coulter or rear press wheel to suit conditions. The simple coulter design and low soil movement means it is easy to pull, and Opico claims just 90hp is needed for the 3m version, allowing smaller tractors to be used saving weight, compaction and fuel. The EasyDrill can operate on consolidated ploughed land, within a min-till regime or as a direct drill and into stubble or grass, but its ability to operate in heavy trash and standing crops and ability to meter three different seeds or products simultaneously, and drill them to two different depths, means it offers extra possibilities for cover crop situations.
Mixed seed drilling A split hopper, with a movable partition, can be used for seed and fertiliser, two different seed types, or seeding with slug pellet application as each compartment has its own metering and distribution providing flexibility of rates and placement.
Between the main disc coulter and the rear press wheel is a second seed chute allowing a second crop to be planted simultaneously, separately and at a different depth. Further flexibility is provided by a smaller ‘Pro-hopper’ mounted externally and with its own precision metering for granules such as Avadex (tri-allate) or smaller seeded crops. It all sounds complex but feedback from current users suggests its simple, practical design means performance is reliable and it is easy to experiment to achieve best results in variable seasons. Reduced black-grass germination, significant fuel savings and successful crop establishment into almost any seedbed are all reported. However, for those considering companion and cover cropping the EasyDrill offers numerous possibilities.
Sky centre of excellence Ferme de la Conillais has been farmed by David Guy (left) since 2002. He uses cover crops extensively and explained that they have been compulsory in Brittany since 2000 to reduce soil run-off, mainly because the cycle time between rain falling on fields, entering rivers, then entering public drinking water is short in the region, so contamination from nitrates and other agrochemicals shows up quickly. Like many UK farms, David has a severe grass weed problem. Before he took on the farm it was ploughed each year, growing continuous
wheat. This was unsustainable and he looked at methods of improving his soils and brought new crops into the rotation, moving to oilseed rape, wheat and barley. He moved to minimum tillage which saved time and reduced costs, using a disc cultivator then sub-soiling every three years and he admits this was very profitable. “The fields were just full of ryegrass,” he said. “Its resistance forced us to look at control methods other than chemicals, and we could see that part of the problem was that we were seeding wheat too early in the autumn. We needed a crop canopy to control weed growth when the land would otherwise be bare.” Buckwheat was an early success for the farm. Drilled early enough after harvest it created an effective canopy and, with its 100-day growing season, it yielded a second harvest some years when the season allowed. “After buckwheat the fields are always spotless,” David explained. With ryegrass remaining an issue within the min-till regime, David contemplated direct drilling to reduce soil disturbance. He heard of the Sky drill’s development and discussed with the Sky Drill team at Sulky its suitability for his farm. His experience and knowledge of farming and crop husbandry was the basis for an agreement under which Sky Agriculture was formed and began operating from the farm. David’s presentation to UK farmers was more about husbandry techniques than the Sky drill’s design, but he stressed that without its negligible soil disturbance or ability to drill seeds of different sizes to different depths in a single pass, his job would be much more difficult. “Modern machinery travels on the same soil as the lighter machines in the past,” he said.
“Compaction is pushed deeper, down to 60cm at times. Worms can sort it out, but it takes a long time. Fragile structures remain fragile whatever tyre or track is used and anything we can do to reduce traffic and weight is a benefit.”
Cover crops essential David stressed that many farmers still see cover crops as a burden, whereas he views them as a profitable investment. “We treat them as any other crop,” he said. “Thought needs to go into which will be suitable and it mustn’t be something similar to crops in the rotation otherwise disease and pest carryover could be a factor. Effective cover crops put in immediately after harvest remove excess soil moisture, allowing easy drilling later in the season. They help the ground resist traffic damage and recover quicker. Covering the ground significantly reduces our grass weed issues and we now spray just once in the autumn, while drilling into the cover crop direct means no pre-emergence sprays are needed. All the time the cover crop grows where the ground would otherwise be bare improves soil structure and condition. Thinking of soil as our factory working every day of the year demonstrates that if nothing grows August to midOctober, then the factory is closed and we gain nothing from it.” David’s cover cropping can include up to 14 varieties in a mix, and he is a firm believer in nitrogen fixing through cover and companion crops rather than buying it. “The air is 80 per cent nitrogen,” he said. “Why buy it when we can collect it for free?” His companion cropping includes a field drilled with wheat and peas. Last year, a trial field was drilled separately in three sections with wheat, peas and a mix of half wheat and half peas together. With no continued over...
Cover crops are compulsory in France and have been required in Brittany since 2000.
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