Wet weather delays crop progress - but opens a window for farming experiments
- Credit: Chris Hill
While wet weather frustrates efforts to plant new crops, a Norfolk farm has taken advantage of the hiatus to test the best way to prevent soil compaction from heavy machines on fragile soils.
Rookery Farm, at Wortham, near Diss, is part of the knowledge-sharing Monitor Farm network run by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).
Farm manager Richard Ling wanted to explore how to minimise soil compaction, using a field which is due to be planted with wheat - as soon as the rain stops for long enough.
Working with David Purdy of machinery manufacturer John Deere and Carl Pitelen from Norwich-based dealer Ben Burgess, a series of experiments was set up to test the effect of different machines - fitted with caterpillar tracks, wide flotation tyres and standard radial tyres - to test their impact on the soil at various axle loads and tyre pressures.
Measurements were taken before and after the machine pass, including the depth of tracks on the surface, infiltration tests to record how long it takes the soil to absorb 50mm of water, and penetrometer readings to assess compaction deeper underground.
Mr Ling said: "We are doing a variety of tests, and we are going to do every other headland turn as though we were drilling.
"Obviously we are not drilling in this lovely weather, but hopefully this will highlight which sort of tractor we should be looking to use in these challenging conditions to try and get on, and to reduce soil compaction on the headlands.
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"From a farmer's perspective these are all the things we are trying to get to grips with and find a bit of ground-truthing. What better day to do it on?
"It'll be extremely valuable information. At the moment all we have to go by is speaking to each other or talking to a machine salesman. We are bringing it back to a practical level where we can share and talk about it."
Another test employed a buried inflated air-bag connected to a pressure gauge, to assess in real time the impact of the machines front and rear wheels rolling over it.
Mr Purdy said: "What we know already from previous trials and experiments is that as you increase axle weight in machines the compaction goes deeper. What we are trying to assess here is the effect at 30cm depth of different machines, axle weights and tyre pressures. It is just a away of understanding what is happening deeper in the soil.
"From a manufacturer's point of view one of the big subjects is soil and soil health. Compaction is one of the most damaging things we can do to our soil and it is done by machinery, so if we can mitigate that we can potentially make big improvements to yield."
READ MORE: Farmers must not fear change says AHDB Diss Monitor Farmer.Mr Ling said due to the recent rains his farm had only drilled about 10pc of its winter wheat - an operation which would normally have been completed by now - prompting concerns about a drop in yield next harvest, or even a longer-term knock-on to the farm's rotations.
Those concerns were echoed by fellow farmer James Porter, of Porters Farms (Walpole) in Halesworth, who is part of the Diss Monitor Farm steering group and has also been prevented from planting his planned 240 hectares of wheat.
"We haven't drilled a grain of wheat yet and we would normally have finished by about October 5," he said. "I think we are getting to the point of asking: 'Are we ever going to get it in at all?' We've never not got it in yet, but there's always a first time.
"Tyre pressures and everything else is more important when the conditions are not good. When it is dry it doesn't make too much difference, but when it is really wet having the right tyre pressures and weight is key. You might be able to get on when its wetter and do less damage."
- The results of the trials will be discussed at the Diss Monitor Farm meeting at Wortham Village Hall on November 5. For more information see the AHDB website or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.