What went wrong with direct drill in the 1980s?

‘It does seem that in many situations ploughing is no longer necessary, at least for the cereal crop, – direct drilling can now be considered as a viable alternative’.

It might seem that the last statement is very recent, given all the new drill designs newly available. But no. it was written in the autumn of 1979, 27 years ago, by AJL Wiseman in Arable Management 1980 a book he co-wrote with Bill Butterworth, amongst others.

The book puts the case for minimal disturbance of the soil as paramount, sets out the benefits for the soil structure, reduced costs to the farmer and believed that the technology to do the job had arrived. In 1977, 205,226 hectares were direct drilled and a year later this has risen to 260,044 hectares, a 27% increase for 1978.

But just a few years later in the mid 1980’s plough sales were on the rise. A 1988 HGCA report ‘Research Review No 5’ reported that there were three main problems: grass weed control, compaction in a succession of wet autumns and the banning on straw burning. Nothing, in the present day we don’t already know about. Except perhaps straw burning.

Back in the 70’s, three seed drills where heralded as the way forward. The International 5-11 tine drill, Massey Ferguson 130 and of course the Bettinson DD, both disc-based. While the Massey and International where allowed to fade into history, the poor old Bettinson is held aloft as the sole reason for all that is wrong with direct drilling.

So what went wrong? Why, after showing so much promise, did the system fail? And what can we learn today so we don’t get swept up in the current excitement around low disturbance, one pass combinable crop establishment, only to see it fail again in the early part of the next decade (or sooner).

Let’s go back to the 1970’s and understand the driver then as to why it came into vogue. We recently met Lincolnshire farmer and contractor Billy Drury who owned his first Bettinson DD in 1974 and still owns one today.

“It was labour cost and the fuel crisis that forced farmers into looking to cut costs without investing in high horsepower crawler such as the Caterpillar D6,” he says. “You could pull a direct drill with about 80 hp and cut labour to just one man, me!”

“I also think the Bettinson saved me in the 70’s. If I had not bought it I couldn’t carry on farming with the returns we were getting.”

Billy Drury with Bettinson DD

Billy Drury with Bettinson DD

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Points behind successful Bettinson drill operation:

Soil condition: the soil surface needs to be friable, not hard baked. Many people consider a direct drill to be the last resort, not the first. If the field is in good condition why turn it over?

Straw: the whole system worked best if the straw was burned off the field.

Timing: it is important to get the autumn crops sown early, ideally by the first week of October for winter cereals and first week of September for oilseed rape. The drill is best suited to autumn, and you need to ‘drilled up’ before October ideally.


Spring Cropping: “It is very difficult to establish spring crops by no-till seeding.” The soil is cold, wet and changes so quickly from being too wet to travel on to too dry, late or both to get seedlings away.

Fertiliser: this is essential to get the crop away quickly and produce a strong plant before the winter sets in. Small or weak plants going into the winter are going to struggle, and the same goes for oilseed rape. The Bettinson had fertiliser capability and this was fed into the same slot made by the disc coulters.

Slugs: this is the big one! Everyone remembers ‘slug highways!’ Billy said: “not if you mix slug pellets in with the seed! The seed is placed in the slot along with the seed and I’ve never had a problem, also the pellets are where you need them, not spread across the soil surface where they’re not.” As the crop emerges, there are no clods to form slug habitat so slug numbers were tiny compared to today.

Tractor: the tractor is very important. You need the best compromise between traction and compaction, with as little wheel slip as possible. Not easy to set up. Of course you can ballast the tractor to gain more traction but then you risk compaction behind the tractor wheels. If this happens, the crop in the wheelings will be behind for the rest of the growing season and visible from the road! Ultimately, says Billy, if you used the Fowler steam ploughing set-up where you winch only the drill from side of the field to the other, not compacting the soil, this would be ideal. Perhaps Controlled Traffic Farming is the modern day equivalent.

So the top two inches are critical to the success of the drill. If this soil is compacted the drill will still place the seed in the soil, but soil that has been smeared together, leaving the seed placed in compacted soil limiting successful germination. Hence the John Deere 3130 tractor is two wheel drive. “To get traction out of a four-wheel-drive tractor you need to ballast the front, adding compaction. With this tractor, if you can get almost all the weight off the front wheels and on to the larger duelled back tyres then you have the best operating conditions.” This is the best set-up and if it is too wet for the tractor, it’s too wet for drilling.

So, was the Bettinson all that bad?

The system of a leading disc to cut a slot and two disc running together was developed by ICI. The seed placement and depth control was excellent, allowing lower seed rates to be used as the depth was never too deep, an important consideration when drilling into un-tilled land. Seed covering was accomplished by towing a set of chain harrows behind the drill which made field-to-field transport a bind.  This worked well on burnt stubbles, less well on straw stubbles. You didn’t need to roll cereals but oilseed rape was very important, with just enough time for the soil surface and slot to dry but too long after reduce the effectiveness of the rolls, about four hours ideally. Seed metering was very good and very flexible. “If the farmer did not want to use fertiliser, both hoppers could be used for seed and you could get half a tonne in and really get some ground covered.” 50 acres/20 hectares a day was a good day, when Billy was aiming to cover 1,500 acres a year through his contracting service.

The Bettinson was that bad:

“Well”, said Billy. “The problem came when straw burning was banned.” While the drill could handle straw reasonably well, the straw on the surface started to harbour slugs that where ready when the crop emerged.  High amounts of straw led to hair-pinning which caused seedling death. A couple of wet years didn’t favour the drill either. Grain prices also improved, the CAP changed its focus and the interest simply moved away.

So all this begs the question, with no return to straw burning, higher axle weights, shorter weather windows, or so it seems, and more herbicide resistance:  is no-till farming of combinable crops back to stay? Certainly, the same phrase keeps cropping up. ‘Attention to detail’. Using ample horsepower, and of course weight to crack the drilling conundrum is losing its appeal with many farmers. But adopting a no-till strategy is much more than just the drill.

Come to the Cereals & Oilseeds stand at Cereals 2016 to find out more…




Based at Ashkam Bryan near York, Harry grew up on a beef farm in his native north Wales. Subsequently, Harry developed an interest in farm machinery that took him around the world working in agriculture. Having managed a plant breeding farm near Cambridge for Monsanto, in 2005 Harry joined John Deere as Crop Systems Specialist, from where he was recruited by AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds.

1 Comment

  • Piers Austin

    Good article. The Moore Uni-Drill or All-Till drill never got a mention! That is a fabulous machine with variable weight control on the coulter discs. The advent of straw choppers leaves less problematic trash on the surface. I hope more no-till farming takes off.

    February 6, 2020 at 2:50 pm