Harry Henderson, AHDB knowledge exchange technical manager, Cereals and Oilseeds, explains why arable farmers should consider reducing tillage to save costs...

Reducing tillage and moving towards shallow cultivation methods, or even a no till approach could be the number one cost saving measure farmers can introduce on their farms.

By following a shallow cultivation method, farmers can use a lighter weight tractor which saves on cost of operation, also saving on labour costs as ploughing and spring cultivations are reduced.

Recent figures from AHDB’s Monitor farms across the UK show that ploughing costs an average of £57 per ha. The average cost of cultivation is £29 per ha and drilling is £32 per ha. But the range of drilling costs recorded were huge – from £16 through to £63 per ha. This wide spread is due to the type and size of machinery used in combination with the total area covered.

If considering adopting a reduced tillage approach, consider the following three points. The first is to drainage – is your land free draining and are the field drains in good condition? This is essential for arable farming but more so in reduced tillage to allow a wider window for travel and reduction in compaction.

The second point, is organic matter levels as this helps soil be resistant to compaction, and improve infiltration and absorption from rainfall.

The final point is rotation. A longer rotation gives more opportunities for weed, pest and disease control, however the overall gross margin will be lower, so costs will need to come down. On the plus side, operations can be split between autumn and spring.

So if you want to reduce costs on your farm, introducing a reduced tillage approach could be just the solution you are looking for.

Case study from Finland

Finland has the highest percentage of arable cropping in a no-till system in Europe at 13% – the UK is at 8%.

While you can understand dry-land countries, such as Brazil and Argentina, moving almost completely to no-till, why would a country whose southern tip is at the same latitude as the Shetland islands and a presumably maritime climate similar to Scotland have the greatest up-take of no-till cereal production in Europe?

I travelled to Finland in 2018 to learn first-hand what encouraged Finnish farmers to adopt no-till.

Nearly 70 % of Finnish farms have crop production as their primary operation – the other 30% are classified as livestock farms.

Looking at the yield figures and profitability of Finnish farming you soon get the sense that things are not easy. Yields, in particular, are poor.

The perception is that long summer days, with nearly 23 hours of sunlight at high summer, are good for plant growth and yield. But due to long, cold winters, the spring and summer months advance so quickly that cereal plants just can’t keep up.

Spring crops sown in March and April when land emerges from being frozen one month to drying out the next. This is not ideal for yield development.

This limited yield, combined with costs similar to or higher than the UK, means income from growing cereals in Finland is hard to come by. The costs of growing a cereal crop have hovered around the €1350-1400 mark.

Divide this by an optimistic yield of 5.5 tonnes of winter wheat brings a cost per tonne of €255. With decreasing EU support in recent years, this has made farming a financially tight business, if not loss-making.

In response, Finnish farmers have done two things – cut costs to the bone and taken a second job. A few have taken on neighbouring land but an iron grip on costs still prevails.

Getting bigger does not mean bigger tractors for all, it means longer hours in the same tractor, double shifting with family in peak time of spring. Employing staff is unheard of and family members normally working in town or at school will enjoy a few days off helping cart grain at harvest.

After hearing this, it dawns on you no-till is not a choice, it’s a necessity. Allowing compaction to creep into soils and correcting it mechanically is just not affordable.

Looking at no-till in Finland, farmers run a finely tuned system, all of it cost driven. The rotation is long, often containing winter wheat, faba beans, caraway seed, spring barley, oilseed rape, and a small amount of set-a-side.

Finland is the world’s largest exporter of caraway seed, a semi- permanent crop that is combined for seed for several years and is a good addition to the gross margin.

The tractors used for field work are fitted with dual wheels all-round and are light, high power to weight ratio 100-140hp machines, nothing above 200hp. Unsurprisingly, the most common make is the home-built Valtra.

Drills are also domestically supplied, either by Tume or Multiva. They are simple box drills, capable of seed and fertiliser and importantly able to work in a plough-based seedbed or no-till.

Both are disc based with attention paid to seed depth control (essential for working in a range of conditions and soil types) supplied by rubber-tired depth wheels running close to the seeding disc. While a 6m version is available, the vast majority are either 3/4m.

The thinking here is that if you limit the size of the drill, you don’t need a big tractor with a high traction requirement and so limit the chance of any compaction getting into your soils.

Did I mention that compaction is avoided at all costs? Need more capacity? Need to get on and not mess about with tiny drills? Get your neighbour in with their drill, set up a double shift and just get on with it.

When conditions are right, a 20-hour day with a 3m drill is the norm, not because they can’t afford a bigger rig, they simply don’t want the weight of anything bigger. The drill is simply built to keep costs down and Finnish farmers that I spoke to doubt that air-seeders gave a justifiable improvement in seed placement and while quite aware of precision farming they just couldn’t see the cost benefit, preferring to focus on good practice.

But, there’s a little twist. The Finnish government financially supports no-till farming. Yup. I’ve said it now.

You may well think; ‘well no wonder they are so keen’ but to be fair there is a good reason. After Christmas, temperatures regularly get lower than -20°Celsius and rarely gets above freezing for two to three months. That freezes the ground to a depth of 50cm.

Snow cover starts typically after Christmas in the south-west corner, but before mid-November in most of Lapland. The maximum snow depth is usually found around March.

Snowmelt contributes to spring floods. In the north, the peak flow of rivers always happens in spring, in the south 70-80% of floods also happen in spring. In the south, maximum flow happens in mid-April, in the north, in mid-May.

It’s this high risk of saturated fields, with the huge potential of nutrient run-off, especially phosphate and topsoil loss, that has made the Finnish Government pay farmers not to create a tilth that is vulnerable to soil loss.

They receive €30-40 per ha each year for every field drilled, and/or undisturbed.

Key learnings to take home from Finland.

1. Compaction, compaction, compaction. Learn to avoid it, rather than buy something to remove it. This is going to be tough for UK tractors adorned with ever increasing sizes and weight boxes up front.

2. Rotation, rotation, rotation. A long rotation and plenty of spring crops feature. No time in the growing season for cover crops. All crop residue is left on the soil surface as much as possible.

3. Farmer mind-set. If you expect no-till to fail, it will. The key component is the person in the tractor seat. If the attitude is not right, forget it, it’s not for you.

4. Be flexible. No-till farming is driven by economics not fashion or religion. Most farms own a plough (they have a low resale value so not worth selling) and will use it if need be. Also, if weather has delayed drilling they are happy to use a light spring tine cultivator to open up the soil a little allow to dry and drill.

5. Small machinery. Less weight, more units, more hours in the seat when the land demands it. So, 24-hour running is not unheard of at peak times.