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Transitioning to Reduced Tillage

Farmers can save money and help the environment by transitioning to reduced tillage – but they must also be wary of its pitfalls.

Those are the conclusions of a group working under the Farming For a Better Climate initiative, run by SAC Consulting, which has been looking at ways of minimising soil disturbance and moving away from ploughing.

Ploughing or ‘inversion tillage’ is well known for its consistent ability to grow uniform crops, come rain or shine. However in recent years, strong changes in rainfall patterns during spring sowing – from blisteringly dry winds to prolonged wet periods – have challenged many systems.

One of the biggest benefits of reduced tillage is that it leaves more residue on the soil surface to protect it in extreme weather, and promotes fungi and earthworms, further improving the soil’s resilience. The working group found that another advantage of avoiding the plough showed up on a farm’s bottom line – labour and machinery typically cost between 30% and 36% of a farm’s output and although reducing tillage will not remove this cost, it has the potential to reduce it significantly.

Reducing ploughing, pressing, sowing, and rolling to only sowing and rolling can allow timeliness to be improved as work rates are increased. A prime example of the importance of timeliness is the establishment of oilseed rape, with August-sown crops consistently outperforming September-sown crops.

Additionally, fixed costs can be reduced through the purchase of smaller machinery.Group member Ben Baron, from Leitfie Farms in Perthshire, recently replaced his 180hp tractor with a newer 130hp model.

Mr Baron said: “Five years ago, I changed to a low disturbance drill. I would still have a requirement for a big tractor if I was ploughing, but now I simply don’t need anything that size. As well as saving money, the smaller tractor is also better for my farm’s soils and is less likely to cause significant compaction issues.”

Low tillage was also credited with building a resilient soil, able to function by cycling nutrients, filtering water, and supporting plant growth in dry and wet spells alike. The process of inverting soil with a plough disturbs the complex mycorrhiza in the soil which can make nutrients such as phosphorus available. It can also destroy the burrows of anecic earthworms – deep-burrowing worms often referred to as ‘natural drainage contractors’.

Hugh Black at Backboath in Angus scored very low in the initial earth worm counts at the start of the Soil Regenerative project, but has found many more worms after cutting out the plough.

He said: “I have noticed a huge increase in the number of earthworms I am finding, and it’s great to see worms from all three environmental groups. I have also noticed the number of adult worms, identified by the ‘saddle’, and I think my soils are better for having more worms.”