Farmers gather to see direct drilling system in action

Jeff Claydon of Claydon Drills talking to farmers at one of the firm's open day events.

Jeff Claydon of Claydon Drills talking to farmers at one of the firm's open day events. - Credit: Archant

A Suffolk farm machinery maker is hoping the cost-saving element of his pioneering direct drilling system will win over crisis-hit farmers.

The new Claydon TerraStar in operation.

The new Claydon TerraStar in operation. - Credit: Archant

Low commodity prices and uncertainties prompted by the forthcoming Brexit referendum have hit agricultural businesses hard, but Jeff Claydon believes his low disturbance approach, tested on his family’s own arable farm at Wickhambrook, near Newmarket, offers farmers a viable alternative to traditional methods.

Jeff, the brains behind a series of seed drills and other farm machinery equipment manufactured on his farm by a 30-strong workforce, admits that his business has not been immune from the farming downturn which has been felt strongly among farm supply businesses as well by farmers themselves.

In recent years, the Claydon Drills business has grown at a phenomenal pace, and his machines are exported to countries around the world, but turnover has now plateaued at around £5million a year as farmers watch and wait, hoping for an upturn in wheat prices which have hit lows of £100 a tonne in recent times.

“At the moment, because of the commodities, we are having to work extremely hard to get sales in the UK and it’s extremely tough out there. But the switched-on farmers are still buying,” he said.

Last week, around 150 farmers from as far afield as Denmark, Scotland and Devon descended on Jeff’s farm for a series of open days showing Claydon Drills equipment in action.

Jeff, who introduced strip seeding 14 years ago, warned them against a number of pitfalls which he believes farmers fall into when trying out a new approach. Many growers were currently turning to ‘no-till’ and ‘low-disturbance’ establishment without appreciating either the risks, or the need for effective stubble management to contain weed and pest issues, he says.

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Direct drilling techniques which create zero tilth may be gaining in popularity but are fraught with potential pitfalls and cannot work consistently under UK conditions, he said, putting farm incomes at significant risk.

He highlighted the agronomic and financial risks of zero-till, a technique which some growers see as a panacea for reducing production costs.

“Being a farmer I appreciate the pressure to reduce costs and that many growers who plough or deep cultivate are losing £30-£40/t at current cereal prices. Seed, ag-chems and fertilisers provide no scope as they are yield-critical and therefore essentially ‘fixed’, so cutting the cost of establishment provides the only real area for significant reductions.

“Instead of a plough-based approach, which on our heavy land would cost around £300/ha and burn a huge amount of diesel, we spend just over £50/ha, including just 16 litres/ha of fuel, a huge saving which transforms the economics of producing combinable crops.

“Direct drilling can undoubtedly reduce costs, but my big concern is that, despite all the historical evidence to the contrary, many farmers are adopting some form of ‘zero’ or ‘low-disturbance’ equipment without appreciating the potential pitfalls and limitations, or need for effective stubble management which is an integral and critical part of this type of establishment. They think that if they use equipment which doesn’t lift the ground they will not liberate weeds to grow, but everything I have seen suggests that this approach simply makes the problem worse.

“To be effective over time, a drilling technique must be combined with effective stubble management, which involves more than just having a drill that will work in chopped straw.”

Tackling blackgrass and slugs were among the focuses of the sessions, and he showed how they had been able to transform an area plagued by blackgrass infestation using his techniques to produce an “amazing” crop of wheat.

Jeff has seen the price of wheat fluctuate over the years, and scratches his head at why its value has reduced.

“In 1970 you could sell wheat at £100 a ton,” he said. “In 1983 we were selling milling what at £150t. Today the same milling what is £110t.”

“Being farmers we are feeling the pressure, and of course the whole market place is a very tough place at the moment.”

The new 4m Claydon Hybrid T4 trailed drill and 6m Claydon TerraStar light cultivator will be seen working for the first time in public at Cereals 2016 which takes place at Duxford on June 15/16.

Claydon Drills’ stand (No. 1057) will include examples of the company’s Hybrid T4 and T6 trailed drills, 3m fertiliser drill, 4.8m Hybrid mounted drill, 15m straw harrow and 6m TerraStar. The demonstration plot will enable visitors to see the new Hybrid T4 trailed drill and 6m TerraStar in action, alongside the 7.5m Straw Harrow and 12m Rolls.