Mike Whiting visited Bourne in Lincolnshire in early 2019 to understand how a detailed review of farm management practices has delivered yield increases and establishment savings.
The option to start with a blank piece of paper when taking on a new role is always appreciated, although what to fill it with can be a bit daunting. Mick Baker, Farm Manager of Peter and Adam Cookes (P&A Services Ltd) 3000 acre privately owned farm at Bourne, Lincolnshire took on such a challenge 4 years ago.
After working on the farm as the principal drill man, Mick was asked to step up to the management role. Then the workforce consisted of six people, now that number is halved along with a complete revamp of working practices and cropping regimes.
When drafting the “new approach" to his team, Mick explained that the rigid schedules of undertaking cultivation tasks according to their location on the farm, effectively a block operation system had to change. Each field would need to be considered individually with the ultimate aim of reducing soil movement to avoid disturbance of weed seeds. However it's not easy to imagine such a protocol when working with a mixture of clay and black silt. Minimum cultivation techniques weren't new to the farm as the previous incumbents in the machinery shed included typical equipment associated with making only two passes across the land to establish a seedbed. Although yields were considered good, the issues were that the constant rotation of OSR/wheat was starting to take its toll, with blackgrass beginning to take hold. The land was been bled dry of its nutrients.Starting with the principal tool of the operation, soil, Mick laughs when he explains that the soils at the 3000 acre farm comprising Tongue End and The Limes are off the scale which an agronomist would typically refer to. "Go 200 yards and it will change from a silty loam to a clay, and then all of a sudden a 'drummy hole' will appear", which Mick explains is effectively a sink where all residual poor particulate matter will congregate to harbour weed seeds and drag down crop performance. Land maintenance tasks are in place with clearing ditches via a 360 excavator and drain jetting.
When talking with Mick, one important factor underpins his entire decision making. He is an experienced operator, learning to drive a combine via the trials and tribulations of a Class Matador, and working his way through the ranks to become a craftsman in all arable practices. Walking behind the machine to check its performance; and ensuring the operator understands what's required is his mantra.
Crop Rotation Review
Discussions with the agronomist team led by Andrew Buckberry of Farmacy led to the introduction of a new rotation comprising; Spring Barley, Oilseed Rape, Wheat, Winter Barley with the existing 250 acres of Sugar beet and a small acreage rented out for contract potato growing. The sugar beet is lifted in the first two weeks of the campaign, with the priority on establishing the next crop and not specifically beet yield. The aim was to get a hold on the blackgrass with the spring cropping "fallow" and extend the window between the brassica.
The other key factor which Mick wanted to exploit was variable seeding rates. He'd experimented with manually increasing the delivery of seed via the tractor cab mounted drill control box. Targeted areas included the "drummy holes" and headland sections, with evidence of improved yields. As efficient cultivation and seeding operations can't be applied by manual override across 3000 acres, an update to the drill system was required.
Mick's enthusiasm and justification for moving to an almost zero till approach was supported by Peter and Adam Cooke. After extensive research undertaken by Mick reviewing a number of manufacturer's designs and specifications, a 6m Sky drill was purchased. This ticked the boxes for direct drilling with the facility for fertiliser and slug pellet addition. More importantly variable rate addition could be applied across two of the three hoppers. The intention was for the Sky unit to drill all combinable crops. Mick explained that various options for oilseed rape establishment have been applied in the past, including retrofitting a hopper and metering units to subsoiler implements.
Simple but Effective Variable Rate Control
Mick gave detail on the principals for seed rates, which at The Limes and Tongue End can reach the heady heights of 500kg/ha, with 200kg/ha declared as a minimum. On average a value of 300kg/ha is selected with the intention of "smothering" blackgrass seeds. By denying the grass weed natural light, its encroachment on the crop can be reduced although the resultant thicker crop requires timely additions of growth regulators.
The essential tool to accompany the drill into the field is the iPad loaded up with the seeding rates. Mick likes the simplicity of the Omnia Precision Agronomy app “Connect" which builds up layers of farm data. The framework applied currently has five elements; soil profile, seeds per square metre, weed profile, slug pressure and seed bed conditions. Key factors to be added in the near future include yield mapping from the combine and also the output to achieve variable rate fertiliser at drilling. Data transfer is provided by GPRS which can send and receive data over an IP based network, with a roaming SIM card modem. Mick has the advantage of having worked with guidance systems since their evolution in agriculture and finds the use of the GPRS technology to provide a reliable signal, particularly as his office can be either the tractor or combine cab.
Confirming Map Data with Field Location
Mick is commissioning the services of a contractor with an ATV and GPS to map the entire farm and verify the boundaries. This information can be then be applied as fixed datum points, avoiding the need to reset A-B lines on an annual basis, maximising efficiency of the machinery operation in the field. Other initiatives which are quickly populating the project schedule include the move to single nozzle control when updating the self-propelled sprayer. The current Rogator 635D operates on a combination of one and two metre section control. In discussions with one of the local dealers, Clive Barber of Chandlers at Holbeach explained that the application of AGCO's Fuse technology can deliver finite control from the agronomists map through to distribution at the crop.
Data Alone Doesn't Replace Good Farming Practices
Throughout our discussions Mick continued to emphasise the importance of good farming practices. If you need to plough, go deep and keep trash buried and avoid bringing the soil inverting kit back into the field for at least five years. This means aiming for a depth of 10 -12 inches and running at 6km/hr. When subsoiling, go for minimal disturbance as weed seeds can easily break through the topsoil. Whilst spraying keep the boom at a consistent 50cm height above the crop and ensure the sprayers axle suspension is absorbing the field undulations. With the wide open Lincolnshire fields the prevalent wind can provide a natural constraint on spraying windows, therefore the chemical application machinery needs to be set up and ready to go when needed.
Yield Results and Future Developments
The proof of any change in arable farming practices is the yield and associated costs. Mick is pleased with achieving 6 tonnes per acre of wheat and 3.9 tonnes per acre with Spring Barley. However these results are only from selected fields, providing scope for further improvements. The practice of subsoiling (when needed), roll and direct drill has achieved establishment cost savings of 100 per hectare. The Sky drill prefers a level entry therefore the rolls provide the necessary pre-consolidation particularly after any sub surface soil movement. With all straw been chopped across the 3000 acres, a Mzuri straw rake is due for delivery in 2019 which will assist in distributing residue and generating a minimal top tilth for the Sky drill. Not that the incorporation of straw has caused any issues as Mick reports a 50% reduction in the use of slug pellets over the past four years, significantly reducing the topsoil movement cited as a contributing factor.
Future initiatives include reviewing a move to liquid fertiliser with extending the tramlines bouts from 30m to 36m as part of the sprayer renewal programme. An interesting concept which Mick is keen to explore is the accurate analysis of each field's requirements for fertiliser and ordering a specific liquid blend accordingly. Interaction with the agronomist and the use of field mapping via drones is anticipated during 2019. The implications of future agricultural policies based on environmental initiatives are high on the agenda at P&A Services in Bourne. Somehow the blank page appears to be filling up rapidly and there is little to stop Mick Baker's enthusiasm and motivation for pushing the boundaries on precision technology across the farm.