Tillage focus: Mixing varieties, reducing chemicals and direct drilling in Co. Louth

Companion cropping, direct drilling, promoting bio-diversity, reducing chemical use and mixing varieties – it’s all in a day’s work for Gareth Culligan who farms outside Ardee in Co. Louth.

Gareth certainly thinks outside the box and taking a walk around his farm would open up any farmer’s mind.

AgriLand visited Gareth’s farm in early spring and with increased talk of chemical bans of late thought this was a good opportunity to show how one farmer is reducing his dependence on chemicals.

The first field we visited was a crop of winter beans, but they weren’t any old crop of winter beans.

“We’ve beans, wheat and oats. We had a cover crop. This field was after winter barley and as soon as we got the straw off it we drilled sunflowers, buckwheat, phacelia and a low rate of mustard and tillage radish – a five-way mix.”

Gareth out in a crop of winter beans which was planted after a mix of sunflowers, buckwheat, phacelia, mustard and tillage radish

Gareth explained that he sprayed off the cover crop and sowed the beans on top of that crop. The day before he also planted a mix of wheat and oats at a rate of 8t/ac.

The field did not receive a pre-emergence spray. However, Gareth was planning to control the wheat and oats later in the season.

He explained how it is important to have a cover on the ground. Soil can become very bare with beans and the wheat and oats will help to counteract that.

Ideally, Gareth wants to drill into a green cover, which also helps to suppress the weeds. He stated that the oats hold back weeds and have never affected the emergence of the beans crop. As it was for everyone, bean yields were down last year.

“Last year, we had bad yields on beans 1-1.5t/ac, but we were growing 3t/ac of beans with the oats in other years.”

Beans planted with oats and wheat. Phacelia was sown as a cover crop and can also be seen

Gareth is using a Horsch CO4 tine drill with narrow tips and 10in spacings.

“It’s not a true direct drill, but it’s getting there. It’s a flexible drill. It’s 20 years old; we started with it when we were min-tilling.”

The move was made from minimum-tillage to direct drilling in 2007.

Winter barley sown with a Horsch CO4 drill

Diversity is key

Throughout the beans, phacelia could be seen. Gareth added that the beans will outgrow the companion crops. The ground cover and biodiversity are essential to the system that he is trying to work.

“I want to keep the phacelia in it. Last year, I sowed spring barley and mixed 1kg/ha of phacelia into the chaser bin.

The diversity is the big thing that we’re missing out on.

“The phacelia is a different family to the buckwheat. There are three different species there and you can definitely see it in the ground. There are more insects, different millipedes and centipedes.

“The soil is definitely better. On the heavier ground there are far more benefits.”

Companion crops creating ground cover

Gareth has been applying chicken manure to his land since 2000 and as a result he rarely applies phosphorus or potassium.

Since he began minimum-tillage and applying chicken manure he explained that his soil is more active and that nutrients are more available.

Cover cropping and diversity is reducing the instance of problem weeds as well as improving the soil biology. Gareth explained that cover crops take away nitrogen from weeds such as sterile brome. That nitrogen is incorporated back into the soil later in the season with the cover crop.

For example, many of Gareth’s winter crops didn’t receive herbicide sprays in the winter. Some did get 0.3L/ha of Firebird, while others received wild oat sprays in the spring time.

“I’m definitely using less weed sprays because of the companion cropping. It’s about €35/ac to do a basic pre-emergence on this crop, so that’s a big saving.”

Filling the seed drill in Co. Louth

Reducing insecticide use

In order to improve biological activity Gareth does not apply insecticides to his crops and hasn’t applied any in five years. He will apply if a crop needs it, but only if absolutely necessary.

Gareth believes that biodiversity is being reduced with the use of aphicides. As we travelled around the fields we lifted stones and dug holes, finding insects everywhere we went.

Colour creating biodiversity on Gareth Culligan’s farm

He attributed the increase in millipedes and centipedes to the reduction in aphicide use and explained that five years ago there would have been plenty of worms in the soil, but not as many other insects.

Choosing not to use these products is not without risk and Gareth did admit that he has had a reduction in yield due to barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV) infection.

“I got wiped out on a headland one year – 2.8t/ac of winter barley. It was a good crop; it should have done more.”

All Irish farmers face into an uncertain winter for BYDV control as neonicotinoids will no longer be available.

I can take a risk because I’m not spending as much.

“The cost of the winter barley that year could have been less than €100/t. When I have a lower input cost I don’t have to get the big yield. I think it will bring us to a stage where it won’t be a problem.

“I’m still worried about it – fields with ditches. I’d love to say that I’m not using aphicides anymore, but I could have to on some crops.”

Direct-drilling has dramatically improved soil conditions

Gareth sees a major difference in his ground since he started direct-drilling. Compaction is reduced. Soil is crumbly and it’s easy to dig down deep.

“Since we stopped grubbing and ripping up the ground I think we’ve solved a lot of compaction problems.

“Drilling into it is hard; you think how is anything going to drill into it, but it just shatters. It’s totally different than even minimum-tillage or strip-tillage.

The ground is far tighter. You’re not creating a pan.

“In 2008, we bought a combine with tracks and we were min-tilling then. We started direct drilling and things got a lot easier when we stopped ripping the ground.”

Fungi were growing on the soil

Under our feet there were plenty of mushrooms and fungi growing. This is something Gareth is happy with.

“When we tested our soils first most of them were bacterial dominated and now they’re more fungal. It’s four or five years since we put mushroom compost on this ground.

It’s a sign of the balance coming right; there’s more fungal activity. I think you’ll only get that with the diversity.

Natural enemies

Gareth is really allowing nature to do the work. The diversity in the field creates natural enemies.

“There are loads of beetles and hopefully they’ll do a job on the slugs’ eggs and keep the numbers down. We didn’t use any pellets this year, but last year it was so wet we had to.

There were plenty of worms and insects in the soil

“Slugs weren’t a problem this year at all, but in a normal year we would struggle.”

He has also noticed that slugs don’t seem to be as attracted to buckwheat or phacelia, but crops like mustard will increase the risk of slug damage.

Buckwheat and sunflowers will also die over winter and so don’t need to be controlled before a spring crop or when a winter crop is sown into a cover crop with buckwheat in it for example.

Reducing disease pressure

Gareth plants nearly all winter crops on his own farm, because he does a lot of hire work in the spring time.

Every detail is covered. The Co. Louth man soil samples at least every three years and carries out leaf analysis.

He believes one of the main reasons for cutting down on fungicides is that the soil is healthier and therefore the plant is healthier. Trace elements are also applied as needed.

Gareth takes about three leaf samples each season.

When I’m going in with the sprayer I take a leaf sample and have it ready for the next day.

Three-way mix of winter barley varieties

The winter barley crop that we looked at was a three-way mix of barley – Cassia, Carneval and Tower. Last year, it was a four-way mix. Gareth mixes the seed in the chaser bin and has done this for the past three years.

The three-way mix of winter barley. Some plants were infected with mildew, while others were not

At the time of visiting in early spring mildew was present in winter crops across the country. It was clear to see plants with and without mildew across the field as the resistant varieties remained clean and slowed down the spread of the disease.

BASE Ireland

Gareth is a member of BASE (Biodiversity, Agriculture, Soil and Environment) Ireland and credited the group with giving him inspiration on his farm. Members meet regularly throughout the year.

“The biggest change I had was Base Ireland and learning from other farmers. In the winter we have a field meeting once a month, all over the country.”

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