To see the images from the event, click here.
For a large scale arable operator, the shed was surprisingly empty, with a distinct lack of huge tractors and cultivators that are often seen. Clive explained his philosophy, “Machinery is just a means to an end,” he revealed.
“When you go down a zero till system, its much more about a changing mindset, about getting the agronomy right, the nutrition right and the biology spot on, rather than burning diesel.”
Clive started adopting a minimum tillage approach 20 years ago with limited success; “the yields were static, grass weeds were a problem, and we weren’t getting where I wanted to go.” So 6 years ago, Clive moved over to a zero till system focussing on conserving moisture and looking after his soil, and hasn’t looked back.
His cropping plan consists of 60% winter crops, predominantly wheat grown for milling, barley and winter oil seed rape, and 40% spring cropping which includes beans, linseed, millet, lupins, peola and spring oats. His rotation philosophy is to be flexible and diverse (more later on this) and has found that spring crops can perform as well as winter crops when they are done well.
His main drill is a John Deere 750A, a 4m machine that can apply fertiliser with the seed. This year he has also added a Horsch 6m tine drill to his collection which he is customising and adapting to run 12cm knife coulters which will minimise the disturbance of the soil. This new drill was bought very cheaply and Clive explains, is proof that you don’t have to spend a fortune to be running this type of system, the capital costs per acre are very low. The drills are pulled by two Fendt tractors and tyres are adjusted to minimise soil compaction. An RTK GPS system is used and subsequent crops are drilled at an angle to the previous crop so as to spread trash around. Clive has stayed away from running a controlled traffic system as he feels that his soils have reached a level of sponginess that they can take the traffic. The only time traffic is controlled is using the combine during harvest. “We need a big combine” Clive explains, “which is an unavoidably heavy piece of kit, so by controlling where it goes, we know where the damage will be.”
Surprisingly for some attendees, Clive still does possess a cultivator and about 5% of the farm is lightly cultivated each year (no more than 2 inches). It is used to level out ground and spread around any trash as well as establishing cover crops.
Last year Clive reintroduced livestock onto the farm, using 200 cull ewes and graze his cover crops. The initial thinking behind this was to try and generate a saleable return from the cover crops being in the ground, however Clive found that the biology that the sheep brought with them in terms of their manure primed the soil and maximised (and activated) the potential that was already there. The sheep were grazed on a paddock grazing system, eating about half of the available forage before moving on.
The change in management that led to adopting this system was originally driven be a need to conserve moisture. The soils on-farm that we visited, were all light sandy loams and as Clive wasn’t able to make it rain on demand, he was looking for solutions to hold onto and maximise the use of that water when it does rain. Research from dryland areas with limited water allowed him to understand that if the soil structure is right, then the soil can infiltrate and take water better, and the surface residue provides the soil’s armour to protect it. He saw a difference in soil conditions so quickly he has since learnt more about the impact of this type of management on organic matter and biological activity.
He warned though, that there is no blueprint to this type of system, or one size fits all, its about visiting other farmers doing it, picking up bits that might work and experimenting until you find something that suits.
We got into cars and visited three fields that were close to the farm. First was an amazing field of linseed, that had only been drilled 5 weeks earlier, and was looking extremely well. The linseed had been drilled in after an overwintered cover crop. In terms of species choice for cover crops Clive uses whatever he has, in this case it included millet, peas, beans and linseed which were all farm saved seed and then sunflowers and fodder raddish. What was incredible to see in the field was the lack of mulch on the soil surface. Clive explained, “the worms have dragged all the surface material down underground. I would hope that as they get less hungry we will get more of a surface mulch, but that might take time.” Considering that there had been heavy rain three days previously, the soil was in fantastic condition (no wellies needed) and these good conditions (and the ability of the soil to take up the water) have brought management advantages with them in terms of flexible timing of operations, including spraying.
The soils have visibly changed as well. These soils used to be a lot redder in colour, but now they appear darker and much more open. On digging a soil profile pit, the roots and structure were great. Clive explained,
“the cheapest way to get organic matter is to grow it, it spreads itself for free!”
In terms of implementing these systems and the impact on agronomy and management, the advice from Clive was to not cut Nitrogen rates too quickly, especially if there is a lot of organic matter to be incorporated. He explained how his agronomy had not really changed much, but he has found that having healthier soils is producing healthier plants, and his use of insecticides has dropped dramatically.
“Its all about being flexible,”
he confirms, “Crops are drilled when the soil is ready, and the conditions are right which allows them to grow away. There is no point changing to this system to save money, its fundamentally the wrong attitude to zero till, you need to come at it asking how can I grow the best crop I can and the money saving is a happy extra. You have to keep your nerve and have confidence, as in March and April the doubt can set in… the best thing to do at that time of year is to go skiing and leave it alone.”
Clive is philosophical about the benefits of implementing his system and there isn’t one particular factor that is attributable, its all about cumulative gain. However through using farm saved seed and having low machinery costs, the cost of failure is low, so
“you can be brave and take risks.”
He continues, “question why you are doing everything, what is the reason for doing the task or applying that input, do you have to spend the money?”
As well as the linseed, we visited a crop of wheat and a crop of winter beans that were both also looking very well. Clive re-explained the idea behind his fluid rotation, and that each block of land was looked at in terms of what it needs and what would benefit it and cropping plans developed accordingly. There was also a high focus on biology, as by feeding the soil biology you are also feeding the plants.
Clive finished off his talk by quoting an American farmer and researcher who is an expert in zero-till systems, Dwayne Beck. He explained that the aim is to always have something on the soil – we are all ultimately solar farmers, so why do we turn the ‘solar panels’ of our crops off for 2-3 months of the year – keep the panels on by having a crop growing.
Clive concluded –
“sunlight and water is what is fundamentally limiting yield, catch as much as you can and it will help and work for you.”
On heading back to the shed after a fascinating walk, lots of interesting questions and discussions were being had about practicalities and opportunities for change. Once back at the shed David Gardner, CEO of Innovation for Agriculture and one of the partners in the soil farmer competition presented Clive with his award.
Presentation photo acknowledgement: Mike Donovan, Practical Farm Ideas
A great evening was had by all who attended and discussions carried on into the night. Thanks to Clive for an inspirational walk.