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An Essex farm manager says he has successfully increased yields, reduced inputs and tackled blackgrass after implementing a strict drainage plan. Drainage plan boosts yields and reduces blackgrass

An Essex farm manager says he has successfully increased yields, reduced inputs and tackled blackgrass after implementing a strict drainage plan.

John Haynes oversees more than 1200ha across on behalf of MJ & SC Collins, based at Kingstons Farm, Matching, near Harlow. The land stretches across east Hertfordshire into Essex.

A streamlined rotation of wheat, barley, winter and spring beans, and sugar beet has seen the business grow significantly in recent years. But so too has a proactive drainage plan developed with Mastenbroek and Trimble.

Right decision

Mr Haynes contacted drainage experts Mastenbroek in 2015 following extensive waterlogging at Lysander Park – an area of some 560ha used as the airfield for RAF Sawbridgeworth during World War II.

Redundant underground services meant the area hadn’t been drained. Waterlogging was affecting the performance of otherwise fertile soils, encouraging blackgrass and making it impossible to travel in early spring.

“We knew we had to improve the drainage on Lysander Park but weren’t completely sure how to go about it,” says Mr Haynes. “We had heard about Mastenbroek’s partnership with Trimble and the GPS solutions they were offering, so we got in touch.”

“We wanted to make the process as quick and easy as possible. We also wanted to know that we were making the right decisions and create the best possible drainage system for our land. This wasn’t our area of expertise.”

Mastenbroek engineer Fred Clarke installed a Trimble GPS depth control system on the farm’s tractor-mounted AFT 100 trencher. Together with a 14-tonne gravel cart, Mr Haynes was able to create and install his own drainage scheme.

It was slow work. To speed things up, MJ & SC Collins took delivery of a Mastenbroek 30/20 in November 2018. It was immediately put to work on fields that had not had their drainage improved since in the 1970s.

Trebled output

The Mastenbroek 30/20 trebled our output, taking us from an average of about 900m a day to nearly 3km depending on the scheme. Since carrying out the land drainage, we have noticed several benefits.

 “The number of earthworms in the soil is increasing significantly, and the soil is much healthier. Drainage is key to unlocking the full potential of what can be achieved through reduced cultivation, compost and sewage sludge application.

“I describe it as a Christmas Tree in terms of the shape and magnitude of each level. So, the base – the widest branches – is the drainage followed by soil structure, organic matter, cultivation, nitrogen use and input reduction.”

Mr Haynes says he can’t precisely quantify the benefit of improved nitrogen efficiency to his yields. But he estimates that unless it is a very dry winter, he gets on to drained fields a week to ten days earlier than before.

Soil improvements

Part of the reason for the earlier access is the improved soil structure following the drainage scheme. The soil is more friable and requires less intense cultivation, adds Mr Haynes.

“The fields we have drained dry out much quicker than the older schemes, and when moling is up to date, the soil structure is so much more resilient. We can cultivate sooner in the spring but, crucially, later into the autumn.”

But Mr Haynes says the reduction in blackgrass is perhaps the most significant impact of the drainage.

The farm has gone from blanket spraying with herbicide to targeting small areas and following up with hand roguing in the summer.

“We are probably saving around £15,000 a year on wheat herbicides alone,” says Mr Haynes. “I would say, depending on dormancy in a specific year, we have reduced black-grass on our recently drained fields by 70%.”