Back To The Plough

How refreshing. How different. Been down the lo-till route, got the T-shirt, got the resistant black-grass and gone back to the plough. That's where John Collen found himself after almost fifteen years of 'minimal-discing' at White House Farm, Gisleham, near Lowestoft, Suffolk.

"We may be bucking the trend but we've gone back to the plough because of grass weeds," says Mr Collen, who farms 1000 acres with his farther Brian. black-grass resistance became the main problem for us and minimal-discing was not reducing its seedbank. I know it works for some people but it didn't for us." 

Returning to the plough, however, wasn't as straight forward as Mr Collen had imagined: Gearing up for the actual ploughing operation was simple enough, "Buying an 8 or 9 furrow plough at the moment is not expensive," he comments.

Moisture monitoring

His main concern was moisture conservation following the plough which he describes as a 'premium' on his coastal Suffolk farm. "We used a set of rolls to conserve moisture while neighbours invested in a double press cultivator with very good results," he says. "But it's hard to justify £18-£20,000 on such an implement in the current climate."

While nothing suitable appeared on the second-hand market Mr Collan opted to try out OPICO's 6.3m (3-gang) Vari-Flex Rolls with front-mounted Shatta Board. "We went straight onto the plough and it did exactly what we wanted it to do."

With the addition of the Shatta Board to OPICO's Vari-Flex rolls the implement changes to becoming an effective cultivator as well as a clod crushing and consolidating tool.

The Shatta Board itself is a series of coiled sprung tines mounted and hydraulically angle-adjusted across the full working width of the rolls. Just behind the tines are optional connecting plates linking them all together, which Mr Collan believes is the secret to the success of the implement. "It's the only cultivating board I've seen with this linked system, combining the strength of all the tines rather than working individually.

The more soil you can get pushing out in front of the board in a wave-type action the better the result in the end." he says. "We work the tines at their most aggressive angle - almost vertical - to achieve fewer clods, tighter soil and a finer tilth."

The shatta Board and the rolls go into the land within two hours of ploughing and at a depth of about 2 inches. One pass is sufficient with a 130hp tractor - a minimum requirement on his clay soils. One hundred acres a day with the 6m width is achievable.

A heavyweight challenger

Mr Collen reckons the Shatta Board and rolls is a more effective tool in comparison with a heavyweight cultivator press and at one third of the price - it's affordable. "Savings are also made in overall establishment time," he says.

"We run a 6m folding power harrow and drill combination after the Shatta Board and last season these combined implements allowed us to get an extra 100 acres drilled before the wet weather arrived. It's not so much the working speed of the board and rolls but the easier time the power harrow has in the worked soil. As it turned out with the weather, that extra 100 acres drilled proved to be crucial and, as a consequence, the machine has probably paid for itself already," he says.

Another noticeable improvement that came with the Shatta Board is a reduction in slug damage. "With less clods and firmer, consolidated soil they find it harder to move around," says Mr Collan.

For the future he may consider a second-hand cultivator drill to replace the power harrow/drill combination on some of his land but firmly believes his plough-based operation, with a little help from the Shatta Board, is here to stay.

Article by Dominic Kilburn printed in Arable Farming June 10, 2001