Our change to CTF
Our change to CTF in 2012 was a logical piece of the farm management jigsaw – aiming to run the farm in a profitable but sustainable manner without degrading our main asset, the soil.
We operate a 10/30 system where all the field operations are on 10m centres, and spraying and fertilising is on 30m tramlines. A further advantage of the 3 into 1 system that we use is that the combine can open up lands down every tramline and then only unload with its auger out over the tramlines. In this way we can further restrict grain trailer traffic to remaining only on the 30m tramlines.
Cultivations are carried out with the 10m cultivator drill running shallowly to lightly incorporate chopped straw, kill slugs and chit up grass weeds and volunteers. This stale seedbed is then rolled and subsequent growth is sprayed off pre-drilling. OSR is generally direct drilled into chopped wheat straw or into barley stubbles where straw has been removed.
We try to chop all straw where possible, in keeping with our soil health philosophy, but until recently we have baled and removed winter and spring barley straw. Our bale carting system consists of a slider on the front of the tractor (basically a plough frame with a motorway crash barrier attached) which moves the bale from in front of the tractor to enable a bale chaser to pick it up lenghthways after it passes alongside the tractor. In this way we can cart all straw without moving off our 10m lanes.
In 2015 we successfully chopped all of our spring barley straw and experimented with some OSR after chopped winter barley straw.
After harvest we take a flexible view on how to deal with the 10m traffic lanes. If the main 30m tramlines are not rutted they will be left untouched to provide good, firm tramlines for the following season. If remedial action is needed on a deeply rutted headland tramline, for example, then covering discs and gutlers are brought into action after the tines to infill the rut and firm back up.
End headlands beyond the headland tramline are sacrificial turning areas and these 15m strips are usually loosened with a shakerator.
The two infill lanes between every tramline have only had a tracked combine down them and in a good dry season can also be left untouched , although (unlike the main tramlines) these wheelways will be planted with crop so if there is compaction damage from the combine we will loosen them to remove this. We have a specially built ‘wheelway conditioner’ to deal with any loosening which is needed. In its most gentle mode, if for example just lightly loosening in-fill wheelways, it is just two fine subsoiler legs running down each wheeling
Now that we are a few years down the line we are starting to see good improvements in soil conditions and savings in establishment costs. Earthworm numbers are up and the general friability, structure and lack of compaction is noticeable in the soil. We don’t need variable rate drilling now, because seedbed conditions are very consistent across varying soil types. I think that these consistent soil conditions have also enabled our rigid non-contour following drill to do a better job than expected.
CTF also seems to have weatherproofed our farming: in dry conditions the shallow cultivations and direct drilling lose less moisture. In wet conditions we are only working wide and very shallow with tines not discs, and do not destroy our soils ‘mauling about in slubber’.
The increased work rates and weatherproofing also give us the confidence to start drilling later if necessary and gain valuable extra stale seedbed time.
Our biggest challenge with CTF is trash management. Prior to CTF we used to harvest, cultivate and drill in different directions at angles to spread trash around. Now that everything is along the same parallel lines, we need good trash management to prevent blockages of equipment and ensure an even spread of carbon over the soil surface. We have to regularly turn and change combine chopper blades and also ensure we stop combining if conditions get too damp for good chopping. This is obviously an extra cost with the system but does mean we get a bit more sleep now at harvest time!
Our wheelway conditioner is also equipped with cutting discs in front of the legs. This is particularly useful after OSR desiccation when laid OSR in the tramline can ball up and be dragged into large lumps of trash.
We have found that it is not necessary to have an expensive RTK steering system, mainly because after the first season the 10m lanes are visible at all times even after cover crops and deeper cultivations at angles. We can also use pre-emergent type markers on some machines which re-create the 10m lanes for the next operation.
There is an extra capital cost to CTF when starting off because machinery will usually be bigger and maybe have non-standard specification, but in my experience the advantages of a CTF system far outweigh the disadvantages.
I can still remember the Eureka! moment when we finished harvesting our first field on the system and it all seemed so obviously the right thing to do. Why hadn’t I thought of it 30 years ago?