While many of us will probably own up to having heard – and even used – the term ‘recreational tillage’, I suspect that few of us would be as keen to own up to actually indulging in it.

For the uninitiated, recreational tillage is a fairly common term usually used to describe someone else’s tendency to over-cultivate their land. It generally carries the implication that they’re wasting money by carrying out additional work for no other reason than to justify the most recent purchase of a shiny and expensive new tractor or piece of equipment.

Until recently there hasn’t really been much hard and fast evidence that such an approach is actually doing any harm or that the use of the term isn’t driven purely by a bit of the green-eyed monster in whoever is viewing the operations over the fence or hedge.

However, the appliance of science has now shown that recreational tillage can truly cost the industry money – and that not only can savings be made by taking a ‘less is more’ approach but also that over-cultivation can actually reduce yields and substantially slow down harvest rates.

At least those were some of the findings to come out as the round of trials on Scotland’s first Strategic Potato farm – the flagship initiative designed to encourage best practice in the sector – came to an end.

Run by the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) with £145,000 of funding – three-quarters of which came from the Scottish Government, the rest from growers’ levies – a summation of the conclusions drawn from the work was highlighted last week as the first three-year leg of the project drew to a close.

Under potato manager, Kerr Howatson, Bruce Farms, based at Meigle, in Perthshire, has played host to the practical, farmer-driven project which aimed to give growers the opportunity to examine and discuss new techniques and research. But by gathering data which covered everything from initial cultivations and planting through to fertiliser regimes and spray programmes, then all the way to harvest and packing out for sale, the researchers could gather whole rafts of detailed information.

So, while the farming industry benefited, the opportunities to test science and technology out on field sized plots – with the biggest being conducted on a 90-acre field rather than the more usual 3m by 3m plots used in research – meant that the scientists got the chance to see how their theories worked in practice. That made the initiative a definite two-way street.

One of the key findings announced as the results of the project were summarised, was the fact that a radical change in mindset was required in the industry’s approach to cultivation.

We’ve all seen tattie fields at planting time so full of tractors and ever-bigger kit that there’s hardly room for the machinery to get turned round at the end of the field without running into each other. But the science certainly pointed to the fact that a number of these operations and the depth to which they were conducted could be considerably reduced.

While researchers admitted that a different approach might be required in each field, the overriding message after a close look at what has become accepted practice throughout much of the potato sector seemed to be to forget bed-tilling – and don’t stone separate as deeply as you might have done in the past.

The results showed that by changing normal practice and dropping bed tilling and at the same time stone separating to only 10 inches, rather than 12, growers could help growers make a saving of £36 per ha in fuel and labour alone before any fixed costs – such as the depreciation on an expensive piece of machinery – were taken into account.

While one of the scientists involved in the trials, Dr Mark Stalham, of NIAB CUF, acknowledged that bed tilling could sometimes speed up the rate at which the potato crop was planted, he said that this had to be offset against the real likelihood that it would substantially slow down the rate of harvest at the other end of the cycle by as much as half.

Anecdotal evidence from the past year had indicated that areas which had been bed tilled had seen a marked reduction in the speed at which water drained away from the drills – meaning that these were often the parts of the field which had seen crops abandoned because of water-logging.

So, he concluded that recreational tillage often comes with a bigger price tag than just the additional, up front costs.

Our tendency to overspend was also evident in other areas – and spilled well into the desire to apply nitrogen at levels which, while perhaps keeping the crops green, did nothing to improve yield, It could, indeed, do quite the reverse.

Although the figures pointed to an average saving of around £31 per ha being possible by not giving in to the desire to keep the shaws green right up to the end, giving in to this urge is likely to create even more problems in the future due to the up-coming ban on the widely used desiccant, diquat. Haulm destruction will become much more of an issue, especially if it is strong and green at harvest time.

But with an estimated 550 visits to the various sites during the run of the project from producers involved in the managing of over three-quarters of the potato land in Scotland, these messages should be getting through to the industry.

Dr Stalham said that the Scottish initiative had seen a far higher proportion of those involved in the trade – rather than the usual ‘hangers-on’ – in attendance.

He said he had been particularly pleased by the number of ‘boiler suits’ at the open meetings, a fact that he said reflected the tractor drivers and machinery operators who actually carried out the skilled work on the land were there and taking note.

But, some of the results did show that science doesn’t always have all the answers. Trials on seed spacing showed that while this might be important for crops of salad and seed potatoes, for ware crops, some of the recommendations coming out of the research stations weren’t suited to the ‘Scottish’ situation.

In a bit of an ironic twist, the so-called ‘golden plot’ in this year’s trials – which used all the most successful yield enhancing techniques and money saving tips gleaned from earlier years – hadn’t proved to be the most profitable.

While this might have been put down to the siting of the replicate in the field, it also highlighted that theory doesn’t always translate perfectly into practice.

Last week also saw the hand-over to the next farm and support group to host the SPot project. The new hosts will be James D Reid and Sons, Milton of Mathers, St Cyrus, Angus – and this time the focus of the project will be firmly placed on seed production.

The farm business grows 200 acres of seed for McCain Potatoes and will team up with the processor and look at the importance which is placed on getting the right seed produced for ware growers in England.

Colin Heron, general manager with McCain Potatoes in nearby Montrose, said that his company’s involvement would allow the full production cycle to be included in the project while allowing important aspects such as crop biosecurity, health and safety throughout the supply chain and the sustainability of production and processing methods to be investigated.

With the consulting group, Scottish Agronomy also acting as a partner in the venture, there’s bound to be a close focus on technical husbandry issues.

Therefore, the industry can only benefit from the chance to continue breaking down the barriers which lie between the ivory towers of science and the swampy lowlands of Scotland’s tattie fields.