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Sky EasyDrill versatility encourages innovative cropping

Challenges facing UK farmers include fluctuating margins, reduced numbers of active ingredients and increased herbicide resistance. No one-fits-all solution has been identified so far, but David Williams joined a group of farmers visiting the farm at which Sky Agriculture is based in Brittany, France, to find out how managing director and farmer David Guy tackles similar challenges.

 Sky range

Opico began importing Sky’s EasyDrill in 2015, responding to demand from UK growers for a versatile drill capable of establishing crops within all types of cultivation regimes and ground conditions. The EasyDrill is based on the successful Moore drill coulter design with a leading depth gauge wheel, a serrated seeding disc with a skim coulter, followed by two metal press wheels. It is a true minimal disturbance drill with its disc coulter running at just three degrees to the direction of travel and effective depth control results from the disc coulters position mid-way between the front gauge, and rear press wheels. Up to 250kg coulter pressure is available, and it can be prioritised to the front wheel, centre disc coulter or rear press wheel to suit conditions.

The simple coulter design and low soil movement means it is easy to pull, and Opico claims just 90hp is needed for the 3m version, allowing smaller tractors to be used saving weight, compaction and fuel.

The EasyDrill can operate on consolidated ploughed land, within a min-till regime or as a direct drill and into stubble or grass, but its ability to operate in heavy trash and standing crops means it offers extra possibilities for cover and companion crop situations.

Mixed Seed Drilling:

A split hopper, with a movable partition, can be used for seed and fertiliser, two different seed types, or seeding with slug pellet application as each compartment has its own metering and distribution providing flexibility of rates and placement. Between the main disc coulter and the rear press wheel is a second seed chute allowing a second crop to be planted simultaneously, separately and at different depths. Further flexibility is provided by a smaller ‘Pro-hopper’ mounted externally and with its own precision metering for granules such as Avadex or smaller seeded crops. 

It all sounds complex but feedback from current users suggests its simple, practical design means performance is reliable and it is easy to experiment to achieve best results in variable seasons. Reduced black-grass germination, significant fuel savings and successful crop establishment into almost any seedbed are all reported.However, for those considering companion and cover cropping the EasyDrill offers numerous possibilities.

Sky Centre of Excellence:

David GuyFerme de la Conillais is run by David Guy, who has farmed the land since 2002. He uses cover crops extensively and explained that they have been compulsory in Brittany since 2000 to reduce soil run-off, mainly because the cycle time between rain falling on fields, entering rivers, then entering public drinking water is short in the area, so contamination from nitrates and other agro-chemicals shows up quickly.

Like many UK farms, David has a severe rye grass problem. Before he took on the farm it was ploughed each year, growing continuous wheat. This was unsustainable and he looked at methods of improving his soils and brought new crops into the rotation, moving to oil seed rape, wheat and barley. He moved to minimum tillage which saved time and reduced costs, using a disc cultivator then sub-soiling every three years and he admits this was very profitable. “The fields were just full of rye grass,” he said. “Its resistance forced us to look at tackling it using methods other than chemicals, and we could see that part of the problem was that we were seeding wheat too early in the autumn. We needed a crop canopy to control weed growth when otherwise the land would be bare.”

Buckwheat was an early success for the farm. Drilled early enough after harvest it created an effective canopy and, with its 100-day growing season, it allowed a second harvest some years when the season allowed. “After buckwheat the fields are always spotless,” David explained.

With rye grass remaining an issue within the min-till regime, David contemplated direct-drilling to reduce soil disturbance. He heard of the Sky drill’s development and discussed with the Sky Drill team at Sulky its suitability for his farm. His experience and knowledge of farming and crop husbandry was the basis for an agreement under which Sky Agriculture was formed which began operating from the farm.

David’s presentation to the UK farmers was more about husbandry techniques than the Sky drill’s design, but he stressed that without its negligible soil disturbance or ability to drill seeds of different sizes to different depths in a single pass, his job would be much more difficult. “Modern machinery travels on the same soil as the lighter machines in the past,” he said. “Compaction is pushed deeper, down to 60 cms at times. Worms can sort it out, but it takes a long time. Fragile structures remain fragile whatever tyre or track is used and anything we can do to reduce traffic and weight is a benefit.”

Cover Crops Essential:

David stressed that many farmers still see cover crops as a burden, whereas he views them as a profitable investment. “We treat them as any other crop,” he said. “Thought needs to go into which will be suitable and it mustn’t be something similar to crops in the rotation otherwise disease and pest carryover could be a factor. Effective cover crops put in immediately after harvest remove excess soil moisture, allowing easy drilling later in the season. They help the ground resist traffic damage and recover quicker. Covering the ground significantly reduces our grass weed issues and we now spray just once in the autumn, while drilling into the cover crop direct means no pre-emergence sprays are needed. All the time the cover crop grows where the ground would otherwise be bare improves soil structure and condition. Thinking of the soil as our factory, working every day of the year, demonstrates that if nothing grows August to mid-October, then the factory is closed and we gain nothing from it.”

cover cropsDavid’s cover cropping can include up to 14 varieties in a mix, and he is a firm believer in nitrogen fixing through cover and companion crops rather than buying it. “The air is 80 per cent nitrogen,” he said. “Why buy it when we can collect it for free?”

His cover cropping includes a field drilled with wheat and peas. Last year, a trial field was drilled separately in three sections with wheat, peas and a mix of half wheat and half peas together. With no nitrogen the wheat yielded 4.7 t/ha. With 185 kg nitrogen added, wheat yielded 6.3 t/ha but the area drilled with peas and wheat together, but no nitrogen, achieved 6.4 t/ha.

The farm tour included a field in which beans and triticale were grown together. Both organic, they will be harvested using the farm’s Axial Flow combine harvester and a contract has already been agreed for 350 Euros/t as a mix. “One issue could be uneven ripening for harvest,” said David,“but if that occurs we will swath it before harvesting. Immediately after harvest buck wheat will be planted, and then rolled to kill it before drilling straight in.”

What's not to like?

Summarising his experience with cover crops, he added. “They fight erosion, fix nitrogen, recycle nutrients, develop biological activity, create organic matter, support traffic, raise soil stability, allow later seeding safely, restore porosity and encourage root activity, help control weeds and produce food for animals. They are definitely an investment and with the Sky EasyDrill we have reduced machinery costs, fuel use, chemical dependence but achieve similar yields to full cultivation regimes. Conventional farming puts many variable factors out of our control but our new system means we can better determine what will happen.  Soil works all year and if there is nothing in the ground August to mid-October, then your factory is closed”

Interestingly, David remains agreeable to ploughing on his farm if necessary. “If the soil becomes damaged then it has to be repaired,” he said. “But we only do what is necessary and balance cost with benefit. Ploughing is expensive but has benefits; it gains fertiliser from birds, it helps build structure and it promotes oxygenation. It temporarily gets rid of residues and weeds, but if it is used against black-grass it must be remembered that it can only be used one year in five, otherwise viable seeds are brought to the seedbed again.”


In Conversation With:

James WinsladeSomerset farmer James Winslade said the Sky farm visit was very useful. Trading as R.JS.Winslade & Son the family mixed farm is near Bridgewater and purchased a Sky EasyDrill last year. Approximately 840 acres is farmed, most of which is clay loam and peat and arable crops include wheat and barley with grass included in the rotation as grazing for a herd of 600 beef cattle. Charolais, Limousin and Simmental-cross-Herefords are bred with additional young-stock bought in for fattening. Winter wheat is sold, but spring crops including barley and oats are milled for feed. All straw is kept for feed and bedding.

Flooding in 2014 meant 10,000t of water per acre remained on the land for three months causing severe compaction.

“We had considered direct-drilling for some time, but after the floods conventional drills couldn’t penetrate and a used Moore Drill was purchased,” said James. “It did a good job but the disc angle was too severe and soil disturbance allowed weed establishment. After the flood our soils were very acidic and we had a flush of wild oats across the farm. We used selectives on one field four times at great expense and, when oats came up in another field we decided treatment was uneconomical and sprayed off the crop, planting maize instead. It was obvious that each time we moved the soil we were going to encourage more oats to germinate and we looked for an alternative drill.

“We looked at and tried several,including the Sky EasyDrill which was so good it virtually sold itself. It achieved good seed establishment with barely any disturbance. Our soils are challenging with clay and peat in the same fields at times, but the clay dries out earlier making it difficult to achieve even establishment, but the EasyDrill copes remarkably well. Having used it for the first time for all crops this year, we have had hardly any oat problems at all, and spraying hasn’t been necessary. We are constantly monitoring but it looks promising,” he added.

Reduced soil movement has been a benefit this year with the shortage of spring rain. “We timed our purchase very well, by coincidence,” he explained. “Winter wheat and all our spring crops were drilled into moist soils and look welldespite the dry season. Without the Sky drill I have no doubt they would be struggling, as we have seen in similar conditions in the past.”

James said he was fascinated by the visit to David Guy’s farm. “I thought the French were a few years ahead of us with their farming practises, but was amazed. They are a good decade ahead in reality,” he stressed. “We use the drill for grass seeding too, and my ears pricked up when we were told of copper and manganese-fixing cover crops as our soils are deficient in these minerals. Our soils are very dead and anaerobic after the flood and I believe strategic use of cover crops could help us get life back into our land.”


In Conversation With

Richard CottisEssex farmer Richard Cottis farms at Rochford, trading as H Cottis & Son. The all-arable farm is approximately 1,600 acres and crops are all combinable including winter wheat, spring wheat, peas, spring beans, winter beans and linseed. Oilseed rape is usually included in the rotation but failed this year.

“We are considering options for low disturbance and zero-tillage crop establishment,” he explained. “We use minimum tillage currently but need a drill which can penetrate concrete-hard London Clay in a dry season. Having tried several options including the EasyDrill, I think there is a place for it on our farm. The main reason for moving to it is that we are struggling against resistant grass weeds and this would be a useful tool. It would have to replace our current 6m disc drill because the Sky drill would be a big investment.”

He said if conditions allow he would zero-till where possible, but would retain the plough for pea and spring bean establishment. Spring cereals would be drilled while minimising soil disturbance as much as possible but, for autumn crops min-till cultivations would be retained, then weeds sprayed off ahead of drilling.

Asked whether the Sky farm visit had encouraged him to try cover crops, Richard agreed that his main motivation would be to use them after harvest for ground cover, allowing drilling to be pushed back later in the autumn.

Article reproduced from Farmers Guide logo  June 2017 Edition

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