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Putting solid science behind cultivations and soil heath advice


A series of multi-season large-scale trials being carried out by Agrovista aim to unearth optimum cultivation and management techniques on a range of crops and varieties to help improve soil health and farm profitability. 

“We are trying to put some real science behind this to see how the biological, chemical and physical properties of soils might change under these systems, which could have a significant effect on best practice,” says Agrovista’s south east technical support manager Rob Purvis. 

At Agrovista’s eastern Regional Development Site near Framlingham, Suffolk, a new trial is putting five different cultivation systems under the spotlight. All plots followed oilseed rape. 

Three high-till operations differ only in the first operation. One was ploughed with a Gregoire Besson RB47, one deep-cultivated with a Vaderstad TopDown (heavy duty tine/disc cultivator) to 250mm and one shallow TopDowned to 150mm. All were then levelled with a Vaderstad Ferox (light tine cultivator) and Crosskill rolls before drilling with a Vaderstad Rapid 600S.

A further plot was low-tilled (modified direct-drilled) using the Ferox/Crosskill combination to about 3.5cm to even the seedbed ahead of drilling with a John Deere 750a direct drill. The final plot (no-till) was established using the 750a only.

All plots were drilled with RGT Gravity wheat on 3 October. “In the dry autumn the general trend in terms of establishment seemed to be the less we moved the soil, the better the result,” says Mr Purvis (see table).

“This has in the main fed through to ear count. It will be interesting to see how much difference this makes to yield.”

Test digs showed the clay loam soils had self-structured sufficiently over the past season to enable the wheat to put down strong roots even where direct drilled.

The result might have been very different in a wet year, he adds. “Hopefully as we go through the years we will be able to build up a pattern that we can turn into advice.”

Next year the trial will use the same establishment methods but will add a post-harvest black oat-based cover crop into the mix. 

A similar trial in its first year at Agrovista’s northern Regional Development Site at Balne, North Yorkshire, is investigating cultivations with and without cover crops in spring barley, which could become a crop of choice to help growers combat the rising blackgrass threat in this heavy land area. 

“So far the strip-tilled plot appears to be performing best,” says agronomist Bob Wilkin. “It’s early days, but the aim is to discover which regimes will enable us to return soils to good health like those we see near hedgebacks, which are free of compaction, well aerated, high in organic matter and full of life.”

Framlingham - cultivations compared
         Established wheat plants  Ear numbers 
Plough 154 492
Deep till 177 524
Shallow till 192 562
Modified DD 205 533
DD >205 542

Matching varieties to cultivation regimes 

Do different wheat varieties suit different cultivation systems?

That’s the question technical manager Mark Hemmant hopes to answer at Framlingham where he is investigating how different wheat varieties perform under high- and low-till cultivations.

Four wheat varieties were established on large-scale plots, either direct-drilled with a John Deere 750a or cultivated using a combination of tines and discs (Vaderstad TopDown/Ferox cultivator/CrossKill rolls) before drilling with a Vaderstad Rapid.

The varieties include a fast-developing variety, KWS Siskin, a slow developer, KWS Barrel and two of the highest yielding feed wheats, RGT Gravity and Sartorial, a robust new offering from Agrovista.

“In the three trials we harvested last year, RGT Gravity performed the same regardless of establishment method. However, there were significant differences in the performances of KWS Barrel and KWS Siskin under the high and low regimes.”

This year at Framlingham all the varieties established better under low till, probably due to soil moisture conservation as in the trial above.

“However, by the spring we found Barrel was rooting better under the high-till regime, which might explain why its growth looked more variable under low-till,” says Mr Hemmant. “We saw less of this variability in the other varieties, particularly Sartorial, which looked consistent across all the plots.

“We have also observed lower disease levels in general in the low-till plots and possible differences in plant growth regulator requirements. There are no definitive answers as yet, but we are learning a lot on the way.”


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