Last night I travelled a couple of hours down to Bern in Switzerland to meet Wolfgang Sturny at his house. Wolfgang and his family have been generous enough to house, feed and entertain me for two days.
This morning I had some time in Bern to look around.
Bern really is a beautiful city with the Alps as the backdrop. After a bit of sightseeing I met with Wolfgang to start our visits for the day. Wolfgang works for the Soil Protection Service here in Bern and our first visit was to some long-term trials next to his office. Since 1994 they have been comparing no-till and ploughing side by side. They started this trial to see firstly whether no-till is feasible, secondly to see if they could reduce fertiliser, and finally the most recent aim is to grow crops without the use of glyphosate. This is the first year they have managed this. They have six crops in the trial: winter peas, winter wheat, spring faba beans, winter barley, sugar beet and maize.
When we got there they were harvesting the sugar beet
On the left of each plot is no-till and plough on the right. Also each half is split again between Albrect fertilisation and normal NPK fertilisation. A week ago they spread oats into the sugar beet and this will act as cover over winter. They never leave the soil bare. The yield of the ploughed sugar beet is slightly higher but the profits associated with the no-till are higher. Also they only plough to a depth of 12-15cms. The soil is light: 15% clay and 60% sand.
In Switzerland farmers now get paid 250 Fr per ha for doing no-till, 200 Fr for strip till and 150 Fr for min-till. Also,if you grow a crop without herbicide you get 400Fr.
The next plot we saw was winter peas
The preceding crop was maize – they never plant a cereal after maize due to the risk of fusarium. The no-till maize always looked worse but they got 10% more yield than plough this year and in general due to better water retention in no-till
The next plot was winter wheat:
The no-till was drilled into a standing cover which was planted after pea harvest. This plot they used a roller but no glyphosate.
The next plot below:
This is a nine-way mix cover crop after wheat and before spring beans. Again no glyphosate but they do get hard frosts which kill all species.
Below is barley:
This barley was planted on 4 August, the day after bean harvest at 100 seed/sqm. It was very forward. The idea is that the barley scavenges all the nitrogen from the beans and also puts deep roots down. The winter knocks it back, then in the spring they add 80kg/n per ha and get 8.5t/ha of grain.
The final plot below is a cover crop after barley and before sugar beet.
On the right in the plough plot the cover crop is smaller. This is because it was seeded six weeks later, as they are getting Quackgrass problems in the plough system and needed to control it with a herbicide. This is not a problem in no-till.
Showing me around the plots with Wolfgang was Andreas Chervet
He has a very good video on You Tube called Die Spatenprobe. It is worth a watch. I think there is also an English subtitled version. Andreas brought his spades along and dug two holes in the plot where they had just harvested Sugarbeet, one in no-till and one in the plough.
The top one is the plough and had a 15 year old plough pan shown by the Swiss Army knife. The no-till had no compaction. An interesting fact they have found is there is no difference in carbon accumulation between the plough and n0-till. They are losing carbon in both, which is similar to what I saw in Wisconsin.
After lunch our next visit was to Hanspeter Lauper. He is a farmer and a contractor and for 20 years was President of Swiss No Till. An organisation, it seems, cultivated and pioneered by Wolfgang and Hanspeter. Hanspeter contracts around 900ha of drilling and planting. The average field size is 1.5ha and he has 300 farmer clients! This complexity of clients has lead Hanspeter and a local university to develop a tram line system that they can change from the cab:
From the box on the right you can adjust which pipes you turn off, change tramline track width and also tramline distance. This is possible because every seed pipe can be shut off individually
Also on his drill he has implemented steer:
So the receiver on the tractor steers the tractor and the one on the drill steers the drill. This is useful on the slopes and small curvy fields.
He has also recently added liquid fertiliser to the drill:
This is a system from Italy and has a front mounted tank
He also has added two small tanks to the drill:
One for small seeds which come out in front of the drill and the other for slug pellets which drops at the rear of the drill.
He has also experimented with row cleaners but with little sucess:
The final visit of the day was with Fabienne Bauer of HAFL. In Switzerland there is a real risk that glyphosate will be banned soon. Fabienne and her team thought this may happen and so a few years ago they set up an experiment to try to find ways of using cover crops in place of glyphosate. This is the trial we went to see.
This year they are trialling Brazilian oat, Indian Mustard and Field Pea.
Above is wheat drilled into mustard. The mustard will die with the frost. It looks impressive but when you look from above there s quite a bit of soil showing which allows weeds through
Then we looked at the Brazilian Oats
It is good a weed suppression but also good a wheat suppression!
The one Fabienne is most excited about is the Field Pea
Last year this gave a perfect clean wheat. It creates a really good mat of cover.
The wheat was drilled ten days ago. This year has not been so successful as the peas have lodged sideways and so the cover is not even. So the peas need to be mixed with another species to use as a trellis. In the future they will be looking at mixtures of species to see what works best. It was exciting though to see work being done on replacing glyphosate. Also to the side they were looking a timings of planting the covers and seed rates. This was to see whether if they planted later and increased the seed rate they could get just as good weed suppression. They couldn’t. The wheat volunteers took over and became a problem.
We also had a quick look around another experiment next door, where they were looking at different cover crop species and how they grow and develop. Also, the plots were split into two, where half where killed by glyphosate and half left to grow with the wheat. Today was a jam-packed day with Wolfgang and I still have another day with him tomorrow. Very much looking forward to it.