Yields ‘marginally lower’ in non-inversion tillage systems, study carried out at sites including Stanaway Farm at Otley, Suffolk, finds

Soil samples were taken at various points during the year to assess tillage treatment impacts at the

Soil samples were taken at various points during the year to assess tillage treatment impacts at the three sites including at Stanaway Farm, Otley. - Credit: AHDB

Field experiments carried out in Suffolk, Norfolk and Perthshire have helped experts gain a better understanding of the impact of different tillage systems on cereal crops.

A new report by farm levy payers’ organisation the AHDB examines the impact of adopting inversion and non-inversion tillage systems at the sites, which include one at Stanaway Farm, Otley, which is supported by the Felix Thornley Cobbold Trust and the Chadacre Agricultural Trust.

The Sustainability Trial in Arable Rotations (STAR) project was set up in 2005 on Nelson Field on a heavy Beccles/Hanslope series clay loam soil. The fields selected contrast three soil management treatments.

Although yields were marginally lower in the non-inversion system, a reduction in labour and fuel costs meant non-inversion tillage could work under ‘normal’ conditions, the report found.

But non-inversion methods were found to be more vulnerable to grass weed problems, which limited their blanket application.

Dr Amanda Bennett, who manages natural resources research at AHDB, said: “Data from long-term trials indicate non-inversion approaches can exacerbate grass weed issues, compared to rotational plough-based systems, especially meadow brome, sterile brome and black-grass.”

As part of the research, soil cores were extracted throughout the season at the trial sites. These were then analysed to measure the effect of tillage on soil quality and function.

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A key finding was that, after corrections for soil bulk density and stone content, no advantage in carbon sequestration, a process by which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and held in solid or liquid form, was detected with non-inversion approaches.

The soil’s physical condition was also found to be well below optimal at all the sites used to examine tillage approaches, at a level sufficient to impede root proliferation. The findings provide further evidence of the need to find practical ways to measure and improve soil health.

As non-inversion and no-till systems are being more widely adopted in the UK, the authors identified a need to match crop genotypes with soil conditions. It was suggested breeding programmes and trialling systems could be used to develop varieties which excel under UK soil conditions.