DEFRA Secretary Michael Gove has suggested that farmers who min-till and refrain from ploughing might in future be paid a special subsidy. But, even without the encouragement of a taxpayer handout, do the ever more obvious commercial advantages of min-till suggest that it is now the way ahead for arable farmers?
I’ve resisted adopting direct drilling or min-till to date because I don’t have a very large arable acreage over which to spread the considerable cost of buying all the new kit.
I’ve also been held back by my grandfather’s old saying of “plough and sow and you can’t go wrong”. What he meant by that, of course, is that if the weather is dry – provided the drill was kept close behind the plough – one could be certain of being able to drill the seed into a tilth with adequate moisture to germinate the crop.
Conversely, during wet weather, drilling remains possible, provided the drill is tucked straight behind the plough as it turns up relatively dry friable soil. But persisting with the plough is becoming ever harder to justify, however loath I always am to abandon any advice given to me by my grandfather.
Firstly there is the ever-growing financial and environmental cost of ploughing. It’s always been a slow and laborious business but now scientists tell us that the process of inverting soil releases alarming quantities of carbon into the atmosphere.
Added to that is the issue of how ploughing affects soil structure. Inverting the top six inches is hardly likely to help with a build up of organic material or encourage large beneficial populations of invertebrates like earthworms.
I’ve been farming long enough to have experienced wet autumns and winters that have resulted in serious soil erosion. For months after ploughing, the soil sits on steep gradients exposed to the rain, without any crop cover, causing it to be washed down slopes, creating alarming gullies.
The advantages of min-till are persuasive but if climate change is going to bring about hotter, drier summers this might be yet another reason to abandon the plough. Inverting the soil obviously releases a lot of moisture into the atmosphere. But as ploughing reduces the soil’s humus and organic content, which in turn reduces the soil’s ability to retain moisture during dry weather, this combined loss of moisture could seriously reduce crop’s yields in the future.
I’ve not yet made a decision about whether to send my trusty reversible Kverneland plough to the scrap heap. But with each passing season – even without a subsidy to encourage me to do so – the only question is not ‘if’, but ‘when’.