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Progression To No-Till by Louis McAuley

Updated: Dec 20, 2018

Some people always say the best journeys are the unplanned ones where you just set off not really knowing where you are going or how long you'll be gone for. It's hard to really know where are journey to no-till began.

Was it in the early 90's when we used to have a contractor come in and establish (quite successfully) winter oil seed rape for us direct into stubble with a Moore uni-drill? Was it in around the year 2000 when we got caught up in the wave of excitement for the Eco-tillage movement? Was it the story of how an Antarctic explorer over came all odds to achieve fantastic feats in the toughest imaginable conditions that gave us the confidence to go down a different road to most of our peers? Those chocolate worms served after dinner at the Monsanto sponsored event certainly went down a trick with me as a keen to learn twelve year old.

Its likely that all of the above had some influence but its fair to say they could only be classified as preliminary or preparatory phase of our journey. It was not until 2015 that we first established a true no-till crop (we wont count the rape in the early 90's as the first thing we'd do was turn around and undo all the good work by ploughing for the following wheat crop).

Observing natural ecosystems and the deterioration of our fields over time were probably the two big influences in making us re think how we look after our soil. Oh and of course Twitter.

Fuelled with a desire to improve our soils and inspired by really amazing innovators I came across on Twitter & Youtube, I then fell in with a like minded bunch of people and we founded BASE Ireland. By this point the horse had well and truly bolted. Intense cultivation would forever more feel wrong.

We were all geared up to strip till all of our spring crops in 2015. To be fair at this point we were starting to think about the whole system. We had established cover crops in all of this land following the previous harvest. Soil improvements were already starting to show. It was purely down to a chance encounter with a man demonstrating a no-till drill in the area who happened to be passing by with an hour to spare that led us to attempting no-till, much sooner than we had planned. It worked. The no-till oats grew as well if not better than the adjacent strip tilled ones. No-till works on our farm. We could do what those innovators on twitter & Youtube are doing. Full steam ahead.

For harvest 2015 we set about some fairly ambitious plans. Starting from nearly zero we would establish 30% of the followings year's crops using no-till. We kind of went a bit crazy on the cover cropping front too. While all of this cover cropping & no-till wheat drilling was going on there was still the matter of the beans to harvest. Our first ever crop of beans, direct drilled into cover crop of oats in a field that was really struggling yielded 3.2 tonnes per acre and was one of our most profitable crops that year. Fantastic soil improvement and good yields/profits. Happy days.

Harvest 2016 was a mixed bag in every sense of the word. Most of our conventionally established crops (plough & one pass) were very disappointing. Crops that had looked fantastic all year just faded away near the end. We blamed poor roots. Degraded soil raising its ugly head again. For the most part the direct drilled crops were quite pleasing. Our best performing crop was no-till winter wheat after beans. 4.5 tonnes per acre and a fantastic gross margin. Wheat after oats performed very respectfully, especially given how awful some of the crops looked in the spring. It was not a great year for spring beans generally in Meath. Ours (all direct drilled) yielded from 2.3 tonnes per acre where they were drilled in nice conditions to 1 tonne per acre where we forced them in in very wet conditions. Lesson well and truly learned. Throw the calendar away and drill beans when conditions are good.

So fuelled by our successes and the somewhat addictive and compulsive feeling you get from no-till and improving soil, we increased our no-till area to 60% for harvest 2017. Along with the tried and tested no-till stalwarts that are winter wheat and winter oilseed rape, harvest 2017 will also see no-till winter barley, winter oats, spring beans & spring barley going through the combine.

Exciting times ahead.

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