Note: This article is being shared via Direct Driller, a conservation magazine from the United Kingdom.

2021 HAS SEEN me — after 5 years of direct drilling — drill malting spring barley into oats for the first time. I had a big volunteer oat crop due to cutting wet oats at harvest, which I left into winter. 

Every cloud has a silver lining, though, as the oats provided some winter grazing for a neighbor’s sheep. The field was then limed, snowboarded on (behind a speeding pick-up), sprayed off and finally in March, we sowed Diablo spring barley. 

I must admit the winter’s heavy rain, combined with the grazing, did result in some crusting prior to sowing. Combined with the subsequent dry weather after sowing, that played a part in slower crop emergence. So I wonder if leaving the oats and grazing them was a good choice. 

Strip-Till Takeaways

  • Seeding covers that winterkill could reduce wheel traffic and compaction issues.
  • Consider budgeting annually to address small drainage issues before they become bigger.
  • Don’t underestimate the value of participating in farmer-led discussions about challenges.

I also seeded spring rape into a cover crop for a neighbor. While the cover was not that thick, the root system in the top layer did cause some open slots and a folding — when the shallow roots bind to the soil and cause it to lift in a block rather than break up — under the turf from the cover crop roots. There was also a lot of slug and beetle activity that seems to have damaged the crop. 

The spring rape crop I did for the same neighbor last year, without a cover crop, was a great success. So it’s interesting to see the good and bad effects of cover crops first-hand and whether the cover provided a slug habitat through winter. 

Drying Things Out 

Cover crops are difficult to grow here in Scotland and, over winter, covers are probably the most popular and effective. I’m still going to try a farm-saved field bean, buckwheat and phacelia mix ahead of my spring oats this winter. 

We need soil to dry and create tilth for spring sowing. However, I’m nervous that the cover prevents the top layer of soil from drying enough to sow into without smearing. I’ve chosen spring beans and buckwheat as they may not require glyphosate to kill them off — just some good hard frosts, which will thin the cover and allow the top layer to dry.

This spring I used a Mzuri Pro-Til strip-till drill in an interesting trial comparing Diablo spring malting barley seeded into plowed ground compared to overwintered stubble. Both practices featured fertilized and unfertilized plots. The advantage of placed fertilizer was obvious in the barley where it resulted in a far stronger, thicker crop especially in the first month. 

The Mzuri with fertilizer on plowed ground appeared to be the best crop as of May 30. The Mzuri with seed only and combi — a combination drill, power harrow and seeder — looks similar, with the direct Mzuri with fertilizer crop a little backward as I described earlier. But it may improve now the weather has warmed up.

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BACK TO BACK. Using a Mzuri Pro-Til strip-till drill (left), Neil White direct drilled winter barley into spring barley stubble on his operation near Duns, Berwickshire, Scotland.

I’ve gone to variable-rate seeding on the bean, oat and barley crops this spring and it seems worth the effort, as the crops look uniform across the fields. Applying variable rate has not been too difficult in the cab, although I thought ISOBUS was a one-cable-fits-all solution. I was wrong! 

I have highly variable soil types at home, so I hope the variable seed rate will allow me to continue flat-rate fertilizer inputs if I can get even establishment across the fields and then just treat the crop’s needs. 

I used a dual coulter this year when sowing my beans after a chat with someone at Mzuri. We felt the extra soil movement may be a benefit in the sticky conditions. I think this worked and the spacing looks to be better even at my higher seed rate. 

The beans have had a huge amount of insect damage, but I’ve resisted insecticides as I’m hoping the beneficials will save the day. I’ve purchased a refractor with the intention next year of testing and then tailoring my nitrogen (N) to the crop requirements. 

I’m a low-N inputter and tend to use harvest protein results to gauge whether my inputs were correct, but hopefully the refractor will help me adjust as I go and achieve the full potential of some wheat and barley crops. 

The wheat is full of potential this year despite difficult growing conditions. The straw rake reduced slug numbers and the second pass destroyed some of the volunteers even before spraying, getting the wheat off to a good start. 

Budgeting for Drainage 

I think the last few years have shown that good drainage is the most important start to any system. I regret letting some of my small drainage issues become bigger, assuming they would be OK. I now plan to do drainage jobs on my ground annually and will budget for it.

I don’t think I need to mention the weather events that have affected this last growing season, but I will say, I believe moving to reduced tillage through strip-till has made a noticeable difference in the soil’s ability to cope. 

This will be my sixth year of using my Mzuri Pro-Til to establish my crops and I’ve measured an increase in the organic matter from around 3.3% to almost 4%. The workability, water and machinery-carrying potential of my soils has also improved noticeably, and recent repeat testing shows a good carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio. 

In Scotland we’re trying to influence the Scottish government to recognize that farming can be the solution to many climate issues while remaining very productive.

There is a fear in the cropping sector meetings that we will be forced to reduce or remove cultivation and all our crops will suffer because of it. The plow, power harrow or combination drill system never fails, we are told. 

I still have that system on a tiny percentage of my ground, and it has the same problems of flooding, compaction, slugs and baked or smeared soils, so I think we must be honest about the failings of both systems. The fact that direct drilling may seem riskier could be because the soil has been beaten into submission over the years from that previous ‘failsafe’ method. 

Listening and Learning 

I hope the improvement of soil features in the new guidance, and without using capital grants, we can still nudge people to try and reduce their tillage for the long-term gains.  

Up here we are in a very strong starting position as most still have a long and varied crop rotation and the soil organic matter levels are still very good.

I did notice at home this year that some overwintered stubble had a large amount of fungus/mushroom growth in the soil. I wonder if this means that the microbial activity was low due to an imbalance of bacteria — perhaps due to the spring oats straw being chopped?

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I’m hoping to find out more as the spring barley strip-tilled into it this spring has had a more uneven emergence despite the variable seed rate! 

I will never learn all the lessons, but I will try to keep listening and learning. I think there is a lot of good farmer-led discussion out there, which is a very valuable and underrated resource. On-farm experiences of others with field-size trial areas on real farms are important.