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Direct drilling has helped transform an all-organic farm in Norfolk – improving crop establishment, reducing labour requirements and saving energy. Inter-row hoeing has further... Direct drilling transforms crops on organic farm

Direct drilling has helped transform an all-organic farm in Norfolk – improving crop establishment, reducing labour requirements and saving energy.

Inter-row hoeing has further improved timeliness. Three full-time staff are now employed instead of five, with two tractors doing the work previously done by four. Diesel use has plummeted by 60% and soil structure has improved across the farm.

Astley Farms comprises 560ha of the Astley Estate at Barney, near Fakenham. Owned by Delaval Astley, Lord Hastings, it has been farmed organically for over 20 years and received awards for its conservation work.

Farm manager Luke Rodway has been with the business for four years, having previously worked for one of the estate’s tenanted farms. “The Claydon Opti-Till system has revolutionised the way we farm,” he says.

Developed by Suffolk farmer Jeff Claydon, the Claydon system has become a market leader in direct drilling. Mr Claydon will be speaking at Cereals and the family-owned company will be exhibiting on stand 112.

Performance

Yields from crops grown on primarily light soils will never be as high as those on better quality land, says Mr Rodway. In fact, they are 50-60% of what might be expected from a non-organic system under similar conditions.

The organic premium compensates for that shortfall. Lower costs mean gross margins are comparable to conventionally established crops.

“Our previous plough-based establishment system was slow and expensive, with cultivations taking one man most of the winter and drilling a further six weeks.

“Now one man can do virtually everything in two and a half weeks.

“It is a cheap, simple system which is highly effective, works well and delivers excellent results. Timeliness is a key factor here, even though the soil is mostly light and rainfall averages 650mm per year, but the last two autumns and springs have been wet.

“Had conventional methods still been used to establish crops we would not have been able to complete all our planned drilling because the results from fields sown in adverse conditions would not have been good enough to justify the investment.”

When Mr Rodway joined the business in 2018 it also employed two full time staff on the livestock side and two men on the arable team, who were aged 65 and 70.

While the system worked, the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 and subsequent lockdown resulted in the elder member of the arable team going into isolation, while the other employee decided to retire.

This presented an opportunity to restructure the business. “Like everyone else we are looking to reduce our cost base and improve our soils so that we could get on earlier and benefit from improved timeliness.”

One of the biggest challenges was finding a drill which would successfully sow crops directly into min-tilled land that could not be sprayed off with glyphosate because of the farm’s organic status. The drill also needed to work on ploughed land too.

Reconfigure

“Simplicity was one of the Claydon’s key advantages compared with other drills I looked at. Some were too expensive, others too complicated, while some seemed likely to block even in slightly damp conditions.”

Having seen a Claydon Hybrid drill cereals directly into sprayed-off grassland, Mr Rodway decided to move forward with his plan to reconfigure the business and purchased a lightly used 4.8m model.

Now, where previously 400 acres were ploughed and pressed each year using the farm’s own equipment and labour, that figure has been reduced to just 100 acres of two-year leys and the job is done by a contractor.

This is part of a raft of changes which has reduced the number of full-time staff from five to just three. In addition to dramatic savings in labour costs, the number of tractors has been reduced from four to two.

Numerous benefits

A 210hp New Holland T7.210 and 165hp New Holland T6.180, plus two smaller livestock tractors. I part-exchanged the T7.210 against a new 270hp new Holland T7.270 which works alongside the T6.180, so now both tractors are fully utilised throughout the year.

Fully organic, Astley Farms operates a five-year rotation, comprising three years of arable crops followed by a clover ley which is then ploughed down after two years, the Claydon being ideal for drilling into land which has been inverted.

Cropping includes winter wheat, spring barley in the form of the old but dependable variety Westminster, together with rye. All are drilled with the Claydon Hybrid, which is also used for some contract work.

The farm also grows spring oats, split 50/50 between the well-proven varieties Canyon from Saaten-Union and WPB Elyann, both for seed because seldom is the farm able to achieve milling quality from any cereal crop.

Beans are sown for neighbouring farmers. The Claydon means they only need to spray off any green material and then we direct drill the beans 7.5cm deep. “With no cultivations, it is a simple, fast and inexpensive way to establish crops.”

Steady speed

Equipped with RTK guidance, forward speed is maintained at a steady speed for optimum accuracy. The following harrow leaves weeds on the surface, where they are left to dry out for a few days before rolling.

Last year saw Astley Farms grow winter milling wheat for the first time –25ha of KWS Zyatt.

Mr Roday chose the variety largely because staff at KWS head office were so helpful answering his questions about growing the crop organically, he says.

“It developed strongly, looked so good throughout the season that it was impossible to tell it was organic, the variety yielded very well and produced an excellent gross margin.”

With much less labour now available, the aim was to spread the workload and produce a tall crop which would help smother weeds. Combining started during the first week of August and was over by the end of the month.

A harvest student drilled as much of the spring crop area as possible with stubble turnips, forage rape and various cover crops to provide feed for our 500 ewes and lambs through the winter. This has also improved the soil structure, says Mr Roday.