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Arable

Surface tillage at heart of healthy soil success Fen grower Gary Thacker (left) and Hutchinsons’ technical manager Dick Neale.

change in mind-set, and patience is certainly needed,” adds Mr Neale.

Lower seed return

With black-grass resistance across his fields and winter wheat yields a disaster, Dominic Kilburn speaks to a Cambridgeshire grower and his adviser on how a complete change in their approach literally saved the farm. Six years ago everything in the garden was rosy for Fen grower Gary Thacker, who farms 150ha of silty clay loam land at two locations near Benwick in Cambridgeshire. Wheat was consistently yielding 10t/ha, sugar beet and peas were a profitable part of the rotation and some land was let for potatoes. And then it all began to go wrong. He started to notice that across the rotation weeds were not being controlled. Chemistry including Atlantis (mesosulfuron + iodosulfuron) in winter wheat, Aramo (tepraloxydim) in peas and Centurion Max (clethodim) in sugar beet was struggling to kill black-grass. “I’ve got to be honest and admit that I didn’t realise what black-grass looked like,” stresses Mr Thacker, speaking at Marley Farm, Ibbersons Drove. “I’d always deep ploughed every season and there had never been a problem until we started to notice some competition from weeds,” he adds. Mr Thacker had hit the perfect storm. Year after year he had ploughed and then power harrow/ drilled all his land, and always without a problem. But he then got to the point of ploughing up as many black-grass seeds as he was initially trying to bury, and they had developed resistance to herbicides. Furthermore, it was clear that he’d transported resistant black-grass seeds via the combine to the other farm nearby which, until that point, had always been ploughed and had

always been relatively free of blackgrass. With his winter wheat at best yielding 4.5t/ha, and some as little as 2.5t/ha, Mr Thacker reckons he’d reached a crisis point. And, as has been the case for many growers in the region, Hutchinsons’ National Black-grass Centre near Brampton, became a key source of information and advice for him as he faced up to the challenge of literally trying to save his farm.

No more wheat “The first thing we advised Gary to do was to stop drilling winter wheat,” explains Hutchinsons’ technical manager, Dick Neale, who has recently helped launch the company’s new ‘Healthy Soils’ service (see page 25), an initiative borne out of many years of research at the Black-grass Centre. “We advised him to put the plough and power harrow away, take a ‘holiday’ from growing sugar beet and, for all cultivations across the farm, shallow till the top 2in of soil only, leaving crop residue on the top,” explains Mr Neale. Both potatoes and sugar beet were removed from the rotation as was winter wheat – replaced by spring barley – and, after careful consideration, a 3m Weaving GD zerotill drill was selected for all drilling operations; its angled discs key to achieving good seed placement with minimal soil disturbance, he says. “There’s no doubt that converting to a system like this calls for a big

Five years on the plough remains unused and, according to Mr Thacker, although he still gets a good flush of black-grass each season, there’s not a huge seed return going back in the ground. “We’re just not bringing the seeds up from depth as we used to and the introduction of spring barley really gives us an opportunity to clear as much black-grass out of the seedbank as possible.” Importantly, where gross margins are concerned, winter wheat has made a return, now accounting for about 20 per cent of the farm’s cropping area with yields making a significant recovery and averaging 9.5t/ha in 2017. Sugar beet and potatoes remain absent from the rotation but there is talk of looking at strip tillage systems for sugar beet if the decision is made to re-introduce it. “That said, we still have to judge the rotation on the hoof to a certain degree each season by looking at what’s in front of us around June time to see the extent of any black-grass seed return,” says Mr Thacker. To add to the armoury in the war on black-grass, whereas in the past all winter wheat was drilled in September, winter cereals (which includes winter wheat and the recent addition of 6-row winter barley) are now drilled from the 25th October at the earliest, giving time for a significant flush of black-grass to be achieved and sprayed off with glyphosate. Typically, seed rates of 425 seeds/ m2 (winter wheat) and 450 seeds/

m2 (winter barley) are ‘cross-drilled’ to provide increased competition for any germinating black-grass. In addition, Vigon (DFF + flufenacet + flurtamone) is applied to the seedbed at the pre-em timing and, ahead of spring cereal drilling, Mr Thacker will go through once more with glyphosate. “Every year since we changed the system, the condition of our soil has improved,” points out Mr Thacker. “Worm counts have increased considerably and because they

“A healthy soil results in a healthy crop,” says Gary Thacker who is growing 6-row winter barley variety Funky for the first time this season.

loosen the soil structure, drilling gets easier each season and more rooting channels are created. “We’ve also tried ‘Tackle’ hot mustard cover crop for the first time this season to add to the overall soil conditioning effect and to see if it makes a difference to black-grass control. It is an additional cost so we’ll have to look at it carefully,” he says. Over-wintered stubbles have also created a habitat for ground nesting birds including skylarks and lapwings, whose numbers have increased, as have field mice and shrews, which in turn has increased the number of owls on the farm, he adds. continued over...

Mr Thacker’s fields have seen a 200 per cent increase in the weight of worms over the past 5 years just from using surface tillage.

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