Regenerative agriculture based on the least possible tillage is attracting growing interest across the UK for the opportunities it offers to improve soil health and resilience, increase farmland biodiversity, and cut carbon emissions.
However, direct drilling experiences of the past make it essential to introduce regenerative techniques in carefully-planned way if a number of dangerous pitfalls are to be avoided, warns senior Agrii agronomist, Andrew Richards who chairs the national Soil and Water Management Centre at Harper Adams University.
While he sees no-till farming as a viable and valuable goal for many growers, he is concerned about the speed with which farms are being tempted to ditch cultivation equipment without effectively paving the way for the change.
His concerns are born of bitter lessons learned in the 1990s when a wholesale move to minimum tillage swept across the country, largely driven by a sharp fall in wheat prices.
?Many heavy land producers looking to cut costs by switching to large sets of discs in place of the plough ran into serious issues with compaction,? he recalls. ?So, they had to invest in larger tractors and deep-loosening tines to aid sub-surface drainage. But heavier machines resulted in even greater compaction. And blackgrass, in particular, profited from both the impeded drainage and lack of burial, increasing the reliance on chemistry for control and, in turn, pressure on herbicide resistance.
?Rather than attempting to reset soil structure each year with heavy tillage trains, many growers would have been better-off taking a step back and asking themselves whether their soil structure and drainage were good enough for reduced tillage.?
This is exactly what?Agrii agronomist Mr Richards urges growers keen to reduce tillage to the bare minimum to have at the forefront of their minds today to avoid similar pitfalls; especially so with the last two autumns highlighting the increasing unpredictability of UK weather.
He points to recent examples of farms spending upwards of ?70,000 on no-till disc drills but unable to close the seed slot adequately on heavier land, with seed rotting or eaten by slugs. That?s if they have been able to travel at all.
?It is essential we all have a planned approach to weaning soils off tillage, rather than just jumping-in at the deep end. Which drill to buy should be our very last question.?
So, what does?Andrew Richards suggest as the best-planned way ahead?