Large scale direct drill

My studies in the US started in Beaufort, North Carolina with one of the best visits I have undertaken so far.  Open Grounds farm is one of the most incredible examples I’ve come across of visionary thinking that was ahead of its time.

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Above: Antonio inspecting perfectly established direct drilled soya at Open Grounds.

A 45,000 acre peninsula of ground converted from ‘open swamp’ to mile-square fields back in the 1970s, 30,000 acres are cropped, with the rest made up of conservation areas and woodland. Legend has it this is the largest single block of land this side of the Mississippi.

The farm was created from scratch: each field forms an exact square mile; ditches were put in and a ‘mere’ 250 miles-worth of roadways. To witness it was truly phenomenal.  The unit is under the direction of production manager Antonio Cinti Luciani, a real character, but extremely knowledgeable and right on the money with his approach.

The soil is highly organic and reminded me of some fen skirts: organic matter tests were 10+!  But they have inherently low pH levels (3-4), which took a while to bring up to 6 in the late 70s. As we were driving round an area by the track, wind had blown sand from it onto the edge of a field and this was enough to cause a small local reduction in pH and lock up manganese.

The original system was based on discs to cultivate prior to planting and they found they were suffering from wind erosion. This prompted a switch to direct drilling in the 1990s and they have recently moved on a stage further with their precision planters.  Cropping is dominated by corn maize and soya beans, with a bias slightly towards corn this season.

Wheat had featured in the past, but Antonio considers that they can get a better performance from a corn/soya rotation.

Seed singulators were present on the four planters and both crops are established on 20” rows. Where previously the corn would have been on 30” and the soya established conventionally on 10” rows, now they just run one system for everything.

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Antonio found the benefit of the new generation planters, that establishment was vastly improved and he can now plant 120,000 seeds as opposed to the 185,000 originally with the previous systems.  The saving in seed purchases alone paid for the new planters in the first year!  I’m sure there is a place for precision seeding with conventional cropping as well, from what I have seen.

Ditch maintenance was a priority and they placed a high value on retaining residue for cover to reduce wind erosion and moisture retention, as being so close to the sea, irrigation is not an option due to the saline nature of the water.  I also asked how he managed resistance with glyphosate tolerant crops and this is one area where Antonio excels. He has a minimum 25% of the cropped area in non-GM crops so that this is rotated to counter act the resistance threat.

Open Grounds was a great example of large scale farming of the highest order, but working closely with nature and reducing eutrophication due to their close proximity to marine life.  Antonio felt that due to no-till the top 4” of their soil is a different micro-climate to the layer below and to quote him “you need a very good reason to want to cultivate anything”.

The following week I visited Dr Ron Heiniger and Dr Allan Meijer at the Vernon James Institute, an extension centre of the North Carolina state University.

Ron has been doing research on crop production for over 25 years and is always keen to find ways of pushing yields to get the most out of crops.

When I had a look at their trials, he was marking later emerging corn plants to see how much less they yielded than the more evenly emerging crops. Ron reckoned that a plant emerging only one day behind the others could yield up to 25% less.  This, coupled with inaccuracies in row spacing, (when even a difference of 1” can see a reduction in 5 bushels per acre) obviously would deplete yields if it extends any further. He also highlighted the importance of building root mass early in a plant’s life as this cannot be made up later when the plant is extending.

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I was surprised to see how much tillage was practised locally and asked Ron and Allan why.  Similar to the UK the concerns are about not only appearance but drainage as the main barriers to conversion.

I asked Allan about a long term (30-year trial) they had on cultivations vs no-till and what they had seen.  It was a very valuable discussion as they had discovered infiltration rates in no-till were 10 times better than the cultivated areas and also the soil organic matter had increased by 2% more than the cultivated area, which hadn’t changed in this period.  Allan came up with an apt description that improved infiltration rates and the retention of water were a good example of a soil ecosystem functioning properly.  For no-till to be successful water management is probably the key factor between success and failure, but this doesn’t happen overnight as building soil carbon (more in the next blog) takes time .  As an aside where they were looking at cover crops and discovered weed pressure was reduced by 40% when one was employed.  Coping with wet soils and reducing weed burdens, surely that is the ultimate goal?

Ron was kind enough to take me round their extensive trial site, which included planting companion crops to reduce thrip damage in soya beans. The no-till one looked best.  As well as their extensive work on corn we also looked at their wheat plots and if ever there was justification for using nitrogen it was Ron’s N vs no-N trial. Pictures speak louder than words and show how vital nutrition is!

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Above:  Ron with N applied (Right hand) vs No-N (Left hand)

A great first part of my US trip and things started to fall in to place as my trip progressed, which I shall discuss next time with details of my visit to Kansas, Texas and South Dakota.



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.