Why 2015/16 is The Year to Move to Zero-Till from Min-Till
"I don't know what to do this autumn," a farmer said to me yesterday. "Growing barley at today's price of around £85 is walking into a loss. It's a real gamble that prices might improve. A crop of grass may well achieve nothing better. There's no real answer."
It's a dilemma facing a great many farmers. With the combines out and the grass growing, farming looks in fine fettle, but the underlying problems are acute. My caller posed a basic question for which there is so easy answer.
He told me he used conventional cultivations with a plough and a combination drill. His machinery was all paid for, he did a lot of the work himself and the land he farmed was not heavily mortgaged. He couldn't do it cheaper. Or could he?
Drilling into a cover crop of oats with John Deere 750A disc
drill. The drill is said to plant more seed than any other across the globe.
"How much do you know about zero-till?" I asked.
"People have tried min-till around here, and it's been a right mess, weeds have been a real problem. Ploughing gets those weeds buried and out of the way, and gets a proper tilth for the seeds to germinate and get going."
"But min-till and zero or no-till are very different," I explain. "Min-till disturbs soil, brings up weed seeds, uses quantities of diesel and wears parts. It's faster, and therefore cheaper than ploughing, but the soil surface is disturbed and the structure changed. Zero-till aims to plant seeds with the minimum of soil disturbance. Often you can't see where the drill has been. You drill using a guidance system or auto-steer, and the seeds are planted and then left to grow."
Zero-tilled Clare w-wheat after 4 years with no cultivation
It was clear that he didn't have much knowledge of zero-till, and that's not surprising. There's not a lot of info about. Arable events and publications are still engaged in high cost min-till machinery, with rippers and multi-section cultivators behind big tractors. The whole business of planting seed directly into land which has not been turned, broken, disced, ripped seems bizarre. How on earth do the seeds germinate and grow in soil where you can see the combine's wheelmarks?
The practice works.... and I almost typed in 'theory' there. It works for large scale and small scale farmers. People with heavy land and light land, organic growers and conventional. It is used on 15% of the cropped area in the USA, from high rainfall areas in the north to the dry lands of Texas and in many many others countries as well.
"This could be the ideal season to make the change."
Why is 2015/16 the season to make a start? With low grain prices the financial risk is much reduced. You know you're going for a loss if you farm it conventionally. If using zero-till causes your yield to go down by as much as 20% (and it may well be less, or nothing at all) and your costs are reduced by 35% (and it may well be more), you're quids in. You may be happily surprised at the yields you get.
The Soil+Cover Cropping International articles featured over the past two years and more of Practical Farm Ideas are vitally important. They feature dozens of farm walks in considerable detail, over UK farms with very varying growing conditions. They tell you the experiences and record the advice from these farmers who would never go back to any form of cultivation. They enjoy seeing the improvement in the quality of the soil on their farms, as well as the freedom of less work, expense and greater rewards.
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The photos below are of zero-till crops from UK farms visited and featured in the current issue of Practical Farm Ideas Vol 24 - 2
Skyfall Gp1 milling wheat in year 5 of z-t.