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Arable

Zero-tilled beet given a timely boost It’s not been the best of starts for beet growers this season with the cold and dry spring, but Dominic Kilburn catches up with a pioneering Suffolk grower who’s decided to look at novel methods to establish his crop.

p The Sfoggia Sigma 5 drilling sugar beet into trashy conditions in Suffolk earlier this spring. uSuffolk grower Steve Taylor.

Switching to a zero-till system and the use of cover crops in the rotation barely gets so much as a raised eyebrow these days, having become an almost commonplace sight on farms up and down the country. But adopting these methods for the establishment of sugar beet – combined with the placement of fertiliser while drilling the crop – might still get a few heads turning. This is exactly what Suffolk grower Steve Taylor has embarked upon this season with a new drill and some home-grown trials at his family’s farming partnership, John H Taylor, Boxford. He hopes to reduce the cost of sugar beet establishment and, with direct fertiliser placement and the use of cover crops, give sugar beet an establishment boost each spring leading to an improvement in overall yields. Mr Taylor farms approximately 580ha (1,430 acres) in south Suffolk –

the home farm business plus contract arrangements on four other farms in the area. Soil is typically sandy clay loam and cropping includes winter wheat, winter oilseed rape, spring barley and spring beans, while some irrigated land is let for onions. Also, up to 50ha (120 acres) of sugar beet is grown on the farm at Boxford while Mr Taylor undertakes some contract drilling of the crop on farms nearby. “Sugar beet suits us well in the rotation at home – it has helped us keep control of black-grass in a part of the country where it is a real problem and where wheat/rape rotations have dominated in the past,” commented Mr Taylor. “As growers, I believe we need to continue to expand our cropping options as was the case many years ago. We can’t stand still – we have also

SIGMA Precision Drills

got to keep looking at new options such as the use of cover crops to make what we do better, so that we have a sustainable business to hand over to the next generation,” he said. Last year Mr Taylor switched to a zero-till regime (on a limited number of fields) using a Weaving GD drill, with the aim to establish winter combinable crops by drilling direct into stubble, minimising soil disturbance and leaving weed seeds undisturbed in the soil profile. “We’re very much experimenting across a few fields rather than converting to the system in one go and, although we only started with the Weaving drill last July, we saved 190 tractor hours in 2016 compared with our conventional establishment programme. “Zero tillage is already showing us a massive saving in machinery use and labour costs, plus there is the benefit of reduced carbon emissions,” he added.

New drill Although Mr Taylor admits it’s still “early days” in terms of his experience with a zero-till regime, this didn’t stop him forging ahead with a plan to adopt the same principles for sugar beet establishment. For many years the farm has operated an ageing Stanhay Webb drill, but in order to move forward with sugar beet establishment featuring less cultivations and passes in the field, a new precision drill capable of operating in stubble and cover crop trash, and one that could simultaneously apply fertiliser in the seedbed was the priority. “Typically when drilling sugar beet we apply a base fertiliser pre-drilling and nitrogen after, but there are suggestions that a second application post-drilling is often put on too late to benefit the crop to the maximum. “I wanted a drill that would be suitable for any crop that requires precision drilling, but also one that was able to place fertiliser at the same time to give the crop a timely boost,” he added.

At the front of the drill, fertiliser discs and coulters deliver gravity fed fertiliser into the soil 5cm to one side of where the seed is planted.

maize, rather than beet, but its Devonbased importer for this country, AMIA UK, visited to discuss what we wanted and to see how one of its drills could be adapted for sugar beet.” With advice from AMIA’s Alan Dennis, a small sample of sugar beet seed was sent to Sfoggia to ensure the correct seed metering system was fitted. And, after consideration, a 3m (6-row) Sigma 5 drill was selected earlier this year and fitted with a 900-litre fertiliser hopper – capacity to take a 600kg bag.

Trash buster To give the drill its zero-till credentials, a ‘wavy disc’ is positioned ahead of each coulter with a ‘star wheel’ either side of it. The star wheels are designed to push any trash away and clear a path for the seed coulter following, while the wavy disc cuts through any remaining trash. Two disc coulters then open up the furrow for seed to be metered and dropped in, while two press wheels following at the rear firm and consolidate the soil around the seed. At the front of the drill, fertiliser discs and coulters deliver gravity fed fertiliser into the soil 5cm to one side of where the seed is planted. “I think the fertiliser placement aspect of this drill will be seen as a huge advantage and I am hoping that other local growers who want to look at the option of zero-till beet drilling will want to try it in the future.”

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During discussions in 2016, GD drill manufacturer Edward Weaving pointed Mr Taylor in the direction of Italian precision drill manufacturer Sfoggia, which he said always had the busiest stand at trade shows that he attended in Italy. “It turned out to be a very good recommendation by Edward,” commented Mr Taylor. “Sfoggia specialises in drills for vegetables and

The drill made light work of this trashy seedbed.

Beet trial After harvest last summer, 22ha (55 acres) of his planned 2017 beet area was earmarked for a trial involving cover crops, direct drilling and fertiliser continued over...

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