The switch to a disc-coultered drill is making the move to more of a min-till based approach possible for one Devon grower. At the same time it has helped to extend the window for sowing autumn crops, following some tricky weather patterns.
Up until last year the Hockridge family had been running a ten-year old three metre power harrow combination drill equipped with Suffolk coulters. However, through age and increasingly variable weather patterns, it struggled with consistent seed placement and was prone to wear.
Based near Crediton, Devon, the business runs a mixed beef, sheep and arable enterprise. Livestock includes 120 head of finishing cattle, plus 500 breeding ewes, with cropping extending to winter wheat, winter barley, winter oats, oilseed rape, forage maize and grass.
Richard Hockridge explains: “On our abrasive red soil the wearing metal on the old drill was costing us serious money. The Suffolk coulters also struggled to maintain an accurate depth, particularly when sowing shallow with oilseed rape or grass.”
As such, a re-think of tillage practices was looked at, with the farm aiming to move away from traditional practices such as ploughing. This as seen the introduction of an Amazone Cenius tine/disc/press combination cultivator used where possible, while also trialling some direct-drilling with a neighbours’ Moore and Claydon drills.
“I am trying to move us towards more of a min-till approach, but with traditional openers that was not an option,” says Mr Hockridge. “Any sign of trash and they would just start to bulldoze. So we started looking at replacement drill options with disc coulters.”
At first, it looked like a new drill was going to be out of the question, with prices making changing virtually unviable. But then a package deal on a three metre Maschio Alitalia power harrow drill caught Mr Hockridge’s eye. “The Maschio seemed like good value for money – anything else was at least £10,000 more.
“My initial thought was that you get what you pay for but my dad pointed out that we have a Maschio power-harrow in the shed that he bought back in the mid-1980s. It is still going strong, often brought out of retirement to prepare our maize ground, with nothing required other than new tines every now and then to keep it going.
“That clinched it. We took the plunge in mid-2019 and the new drill arrived in time to sow our oilseed rape.”
Conditions in autumn 2019 were tricky to say the least, says Mr Hockridge, with wet weather continuing right through from the tail end of harvest up to Christmas. “The Maschio was immediately put to the test with some pretty horrible, sticky wet stuff to deal with.
“With a Suffolk-coultered drill it would have been impossible to get a lot of it in the ground but the Alitalia’s disc-openers just kept turning.
“It is really is impressive the way the coulters cut the slot so that the seed is always covered with a decent layer of tilth by the following harrow.”
Though it is season specific, the new style drill has created a wider working window to get seed into the ground, says Mr Hockridge. “It is fair to say it will go a lot longer when it comes wet, and the disc coulters cope a lot better with trash in non-inversion seedbeds.”
The electronic metering system also comes in for praise. “Seed rates are precise with the RDS rate controller. With work rates generated by a GPS feed it knows exactly what pace to run seed out at and that shows as the crops come up.
“That level of accuracy all hangs on how well it is calibrated of course; a process which has been made easy – you just open the shutter, hit the button, it runs for a given number of turns and you weigh what is spewed out. Punch that into the control box and it works the rest out for itself.
“However, the electronic metering can be prone to leaving a gap when pulling into bouts, but the control box has a pre-start function which primes metering rollers with seed for a few seconds, doing away with this issue.”
Overall, the new drill has been significant step forward for the farm, says Mr Hockridge. “It has greatly widened our drilling window, allowing us to work on far longer when the weather comes in wet.
"Critically, its ability to handle trashier seedbeds has enabled us to move a step further towards our goal of reducing the intensity of our cultivations.”
Early tram-line triggers
Another area where the drill scores well is on the tram-lining system, which differs quite a bit from its predecessor. “Rather than counting reps from the marker arms, the electronic control box uses a simple toggle switch to record how many times the drill is dropped in and out of work.
“That way, if the hopper runs empty halfway up a bout, it does not upset the tram-lining – I can just return to the same spot after a refill and continue drilling.
“Although this is great for simplicity, it does mean close attention has to be paid when lifting in and out of work for a hopper re-fill. If you are not careful, the system can trigger an early tram-line.”
In terms of maintenance, Mr Hockridge reports: “It is physically easy to get in and around the hopper and metering system to clean it out, and I like having grease-able bearings on packer roller. I also like quick change idea for the power-harrow tines. Overall, there is not too much to do in the way of servicing.”
As for wear rates, Mr Hockridge adds: “Much of the farm’s ground is very, very abrasive gritty red sandstone, so our big issue is always wearing metal. So far, we have been surprised that even after 400-plus acres work we have not had to change any power-harrow tines.
"Coulter discs are also not showing any signs of wear – we are hoping that they will not suffer as badly as the old drill’s Suffolk coulters. The only metal that has needed changing so far has been the following-harrow tines, but we expected that.”