Adopting a minimum tillage system and moving less soil can increase profitability despite crop establishment challenges, suggest interim trial results.
The impact of differing cultivation types has been assessed for the past three years by the Syngenta Sustainable Farming Initiative in partnership with NIAB and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project.
Interim findings from the half-way point of the five-year project – which aims to quantify the effects of a move towards conservation agriculture – were presented at last month’s Cereals 2021 in Lincolnshire.
The trials are on heavy soil at Loddington, Leicestershire, and on a light-land farm at Lenham, Kent. A plough-based system is being assessed against minimum-cultivation and direct drilling across a rotation of barley, oilseed rape, wheat, beans and wheat.
Financial data shows that direct drilling has resulted in reductions in fuel usage of between 50-65%, while work rates over the ploughed system are around 50% improved. This has driven operational cost improvements of some £8-£10/ha.
But crop establishment has suffered – especially in the challenging soils at Loddington – with a drop of around 8% helping contribute to an overall reduction in both yield and grain margin/ha of 9%.
Even so, net profit per hectare has so far increased by 5% at Loddington and by 18% at Lenham. Soil greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 16-17% at both sites, and the measured carbon footprint of the cropped area fell by some 10%.
Syngenta head of sustainability Mark Hall said: “The research has proven the potential for conservation agriculture techniques to hugely cut greenhouse gas emissions, by around 16%.
“With these results, when you combine the environmental gains with the improvement in net profit, of 18% on light land and 5% on heavier land, there is clear direction for a more sustainable farming system.”
The two contrasting soil types has identified some key challenges for growers moving to conservation agriculture systems – but also pinpointed potential for future research to address those issues.
Syngenta project manager Belinda Bailey said: “Over the course of the trial yields have been slightly lower with the direct/light till establishment, down by around 3% on lights land and 9% on heavy land.
“That would appear to be primarily due to correspondingly reduced crop establishment on both farms.
“However, when you factor in the cost savings of up to 65% fuel saving, 10% reduction in operating costs and over 50% improvement in work rate, the effects of yield penalties are largely mitigated.
“Add in the savings in the farm’s overall machinery required for the direct-drill establishment, and the net profit in both farm situations is extremely positive,” saidMs Bailey.
GWCT Allerton Project head of partnerships Joe Stanley said: “On the environmental front, bird sightings at both farms were seen to double in a direct-drilling system, while earthworm numbers were also up.
With the Basic Payment Scheme due to be phased out by 2028, and given the challenges of an increasingly extreme climate, Mr Staney said it had never been more vital for farmers to reduce costs and boost the resilience of their farming systems.
“Furthermore, the dramatically improved work rate of the reduced tillage system offers a clear attraction to farm businesses needing to capitalise on increasingly narrow weather windows,” he said.
The key metric in the report is the net profit/ha which improved at both sites despite decreased yields – although this wasn’t to deny the greater challenges represented by heavy land in this transition.
Consideration must also be given to the costs of replacing existing equipment, said Mr Stanley.
The story was similarly positive on the environmental front, with biodiversity increasing, the worm numbers moving in the right direction under reduced tillage to help improve soil health, and the carbon footprint of the food produced declining.
“This indicates that conservation agriculture will likely play a key part in the move towards nature-friendly, climate-friendly farming.”
Read more about soil health.