Home and away

Returning from Australia took me a few days to not only recover from jet lag, but get back to everyday farming in the UK. It’s always nice coming home, especially as I turned 40 while travelling between Melbourne and Adelaide!

Crucially for my project I want to explore every avenue and remain open minded about my approach.  So I am visiting people in Europe, recently to the Czech Republic for a meeting with Michael Horsch – it’s not a stag weekend, contrary to popular belief!

Slurry Injection

Above: Slurry injection Horsch style!

Michael is one of the most fascinating people I have met, deeply passionate and hugely innovative with his thinking. I was lucky to be able to spend the day asking him questions and touring his farming operation.

Some key elements for making any reduced tillage or no-till operation a success were brought home to me, such as understanding the Carbon: Nitrogen ratios and decomposition rates for different crop residues. Wheat straw, for example, takes twice as long to break down as maize.  Although there is too much detail to go in this blog, we were also able to discuss how the use of strip tillage has a different effect on the local plant environment compared to conventional tillage.

Michael explained how the land drainage was poor in some areas of the farm and how it was impossible for them to farm without tracked machines, which even included the chaser bin, fertiliser spreader and slurry tanker.  This was clearly evident in fields where a contractor with a combine on tyres had really struggled and wheelings were more evident than the tracked versions.  RTK was at the heart of the operation for planting maize on pre-worked cultivated ridges from the autumn: the ridges would be 2-3 degrees warmer than the hollows in the spring.

Michael was adamant that if you use tracks, everything should be tracked rather than a mixture of tyres and tracks, and this made a lot of sense from what I saw.

RTK Cultivated Ridges

Above: RTK cultivated ridges for maize planting

I also visited Simon Cowell (not that one!) in Essex. I have always been impressed with the way Simon has adapted his system to work on some very heavy clay which is similar to our ground at home, but far more challenging.

Before Simon’s switch to no-till, spring cropping would have been unthinkable on his soil type as it would have been impossible to create a seed bed and even in the autumn there could be times where establishment was less than ideal.

Since the change, the fields are level and spring cropping is a core part of the rotation. Simon took me to one field which historically had bad black-grass, yet this crop of wheat was very clean. For this year that is quite some achievement.

The great thing about Simon is that he not only has the choice of a disc or tine drill, but he is prepared to do that little extra operation (which could be a light harrow) after the drilling pass to maximise his establishment if it is required.  This was evident where he had used his disc drill in the spring. It was very important to get the slots closed and covered, as he found that as soils dried they would crack along the line of the slot if not covered sufficiently.

Something I had discussed with Michael Horsch was using singulators on seed drills. This places seeds at precise intervals within the row, and it must have been my lucky day as Simon had a field of wheat planted the previous autumn where he has this facility on his drill.

Below: Simon illustrating direct drilled wheat planted with seed singulators on a Bertini disc drill.

Simon Cowell

It was terrific to meet Simon and he confirmed that direct drilling can be achieved on heavy ground successfully. I also learnt, though, that it’s vital to be able to adapt the rotation and be prepared to experiment.

Next time:  Next stop USA for a visit to growers in North Carolina, North Dakota and Philadelphia.



Russell McKenzie farms 750ha on predominantly heavy clay on the border between Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. He grows seed on contract as well as soft and feed wheat, and his usual rotation is wheat, OSR and spring beans. A Nuffield Scholar, Russ has been researching direct drilling in extreme weather in 2013 and 2014.