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Why cut when you can strip?

10th September 2012

Source - Profi Tractor Prifi Tractor

Crops such as high-value grass seed used to be a staple ingredient in the rotations on many Essex arable farms. But, as production practices were modernised, grass seed began to give way to other crops that are possibly more straightforward to grow and harvest.

Michael Scantlebury, of Little Manwood Farm, Matching Green near Harlow, has remained in grass seed production, and the crop now accounts for nearly half of the farm’s income despite occupying just a third of the total area. Specialist kit and adopting precision application practices are important to the growing of both cereals and grass seed by Scantlebury Farm Services, he explains. And the formation of a joint venture partnership between him and his cousin Richard has also enabled expansion into contract farming.Mr Scantlebury

“When Richard’s full-time worker retired in 2006, it brought to light the issue that both our nine- and eleven-year-old combines needed replacing. We had been running a Claas Lexion 430 and Mega 204 together. It seemed a prudent time to start a new joint venture. We were ideal partners as, to a large extent, we have to work around the grass seed enterprise, and a lot of people wouldn’t be quite so understanding — for example, if they had to wait for the combine,” he explains. In 2007 the partnership invested in a Claas Lexion 600 TT unit with a 9.0m cutterbar — plus a narrower 6.0m conventional header and 4.5m Shelbourne Reynolds draper pick-up specifically for the grass seed crop.

“It was a lot of money and a big harvester, but at the time we were double combining our grass seed crops, cutting with a conventional header and then re-threshing using the pick-up header five to ten days later,” says Mr Scantlebury. “Up to 80% of grass seed is harvested from the first pass when operating a conventional header, but to ensure maximum returns a second pass is required to make sure that every possible seed gets to the store.”

After the first season Mr Scantlebury realised that the Lexion 600’s rotary threshing system left the swath too lumpy for it to smoothly pass through the combine a second time. “We thought a 6m header would cope – but all that happened was we had to put in a substantial warranty claim.” They then heard about a grass seed grower in Hampshire employing a stripper header to harvest the crop, so they went to see one at Shelbourne Reynolds. After the visit they settled on one of the firm’s 7.2m wide stripper headers.

The Suffolk-based manufacturer has been making stripper headers for the past 22 years, still sticking to the original concept of using a backwards rotating rotor, equipped with eight rows of stripping fingers, to ‘tease’ grain off the ears as the header bar moves the plant heads forwards. The rotor speed can be varied according to conditions.

After the grain has been stripped by the rotor, a series of deflectors take the seeds back into a conventional auger and pan. This auger then moves the material backwards, where it enters the combine’s elevator. Shelbourne Reynolds reckons nearly 85% of the grain is threshed out by the header, meaning the material entering the combine is predominantly seed, chaff, leaf and a minimal amount of straw. The benefit of the reduced volume of material entering the combine is a significantly improved overall capacity and efficiency.RSD

“The purchase of this header revolutionised our harvesting system,” says Mr Scantlebury. “With a conventional header we struggled to do 16ha/day; now we can comfortably manage 24ha/day.”

The stripper header also means the second combining pass is now unnecessary, because nearly all the seed is gathered in the initial ‘strip’.

“This not only reduces the time we spend combining by ten to 14 days, but it also saves considerable wear and tear on the combine itself. Our harvesting speed is now dramatically quicker, because even when it’s most loaded there’s only a third of the material going through the machine, the rest remaining attached to the ground,” notes Mr Scantlebury.

To some extent the main limit on output is now how quickly he can clean the machine between varieties, he adds. Every time the variety is changed, the whole combine has to be sanitised with an air compressor, getting into every nook and cranny on the machine — from the grain tank to the belly. Indeed, the header has lifted performance to such an extent that when it comes to replacing the farm’s existing Lexion 600, he reckons he will be able to buy a smaller machine, purely because of the reduced workload.

“Although we cut 880ha a year, with the old system we were going through the 240ha block of grass seed twice. Now, because we don’t have to do that anymore, I don’t see why we should need such a high capacity harvester.”

The partnership has run the Lexion 600 for five consecutive harvests and has just signed a further three-year service contract with Claas. “I have been with Claas, man and boy. Because Saxham is only an hour away and Shelbourne Reynolds is also within easy driving distance, our harvesting support is secure. That’s important when you’re dealing with a high-value crop.”

Grass seed grown at Manwood goes into stores with ventilated floors and stirrers, with the air turned on as soon as the crop comes in straight off the combine. “You can’t leave it in the trailer for a couple of hours after unloading; that’s what will destroy the germination,” he adds.

After harvesting the seed, grass stems are mown and baled, and the field is then either left for the next season or ploughed before going into wheat.

In total, the two farms grow about 250ha of grass seed, with a mixture of both agricultural and amenity varieties sown. Yields can be sporadic, says Mr Scantlebury, adding that it’s possible to achieve as much as 2.5t/ ha, although the return can also be as low as 370kg/ha. Grass seed is duly sold by the £/50kg, and current prices range from £60- £85/50kg.

Grass seed must be drilled into a firm, fine seedbed, which is created with one pass of a 3.0m trailed Sumo Trio, two passes of a Väderstad Rexius Twin 630 and one pass with the Cambridge rolls. All grass seed and most cereal crops are sown with an 8.0m wide Moore Unidrill, before receiving the all-important pass of some heavy flat rolls. “We’ve run a Moore drill for the past 20 years. We had a 6.0m model until four years ago and then we went for an 8.0m version. It’s ideal for us because we need accurate depth control to as shallow as 1cm, because grass seed is almost spread on the surface before being rolled in,” says Mr Scantlebury.

All of the ground is ploughed in 350mm (14in) furrows after grass to get rid of the turf ahead of wheat. “As it’s a growing crop until the moment we break it up, the ground can be hard. We power harrow straight after ploughing to break up any clods.” Overall, Mr Scantlebury believes that it’s tempting to cultivate deeper than is really necessary. “We’re looking at utilising discs again to preserve moisture in drier years and to reduce energy requirement.”

Oilseed rape is established with a nine-tine 4m Simba Flatliner 300, originally used for establishing beans and fitted with an Accord hopper that blows seed behind the tines. “For second wheat’s we’ve been doing more with the Trio, and to plant linseed and peas we spray off and drill with the Moore behind the combine.

“Our Moore drill has also been called on to plant red fescue while simultaneously sowing linseed,” he adds. For this, the linseed went in the main hopper and every third coulter was used for fescue, which needs to be under sown. He has found this operation to be most successful under linseed.

The rotation is largely two years of grass followed by two years of wheat, alternating for as long as there’s the seed merchant demand for the variety being sown. Grass weed control isn’t too much of a problem, despite the rotation, he explains. “Because it’s perennial ryegrass, and not Italian, we don’t find it a problem controlling ryegrass in wheat. We use CTU, DFF and Crystal in our wheat herbicide campaign.”

In the grass seed crops the ground is hit predrilling with glyphosate, and then again at pre-emergence mainly to control volunteer wheat. The herbicide Ethofumesate is applied with a wetter, Activator 90, for black grass and volunteer cereal control in the winter.

“To a large extent we’re growing the crop classically, with a dressing of 30kg/ha of nitrogen applied in the autumn and 125kg/ ha of muriate of potash in the spring. Phosphate goes on when soil testing suggests a requirement.”

Spring applications of nitrogen are split into two lots of around 85kg/ha, one in early March and one a month later. A growth regulator and fungicide mixture is applied at early heading in May. “After the first harvest, as soon as the field is baled, Liberator is used to control any volunteers ahead of the second year’s harvest.”

Although the farm has only recently taken delivery of a new main wheeled tractor, a Fendt 939 Vario, the partnership ran a 936 Vario before this for primary tillage, slurry spreading and field work. However, it wasn’t for the claimed fuel cost savings that they bought another Fendt.RSD grass

“The Stage IIIA Fendt 936 consumed a similar amount of fuel to the Challenger in the field,” explains Mr Scantlebury. “The beauty of a Fendt is the fact you can add ballast so quickly and easily. Because I am often the one running around at harvest and drilling time, it’s not unusual for me to stick the 939 on the rolls to follow the drill.” Fendt’s TMS (Tractor Management System) comes into its own on transport work when compared with a power shift transmission, he adds. “Then, if it’s needed for the plough or bean drill, it takes only a couple of hours to stick on the 2.5t rear wheel weights and the 2.5t front weights, re-inflate the tyres, and you’ve got a heavy field work tractor again. Plus the residual value has been very good.”

All tractors are on service contracts and are bought on hire purchase agreements. “Service contracts are extended at the end of the HP agreement if we intend to keep the machine, as we did with the combine. Our replacement policy really depends on whether there’s a good deal to be had and when pieces of kit get expensive to run.”

To improve operating efficiency, the farm was an ‘early adopter’ of the precise RTK GPS correction signal, being one of the first customers to employ the Leica mojoRTK system, sourced through Soil Essentials. This set-up initially relied on having a portable base station.

“We spent the first season lugging the tripod around the farm, but when an RTK network became available we went for it,” says Mr Scantlebury. “It’s the reliability of RTK that justifies it for us. We had a couple of tractors on demo, one of which was using an EGNOS signal. After operating this tractor for a while I started to wonder whether RTK was worth the extra investment. Then at the end of the field the tractor lost the EGNOS signal and went completely haywire. “The advantage of RTK is there’s no drift. This became evident when we had a problem with the drilling tractor and had to put a different tractor on the drill. It was just a case of plugging in the USB stick to transfer the A-B lines, and we were up and running again.

“I suppose the next most obvious move will be to go down the variable seed rate route, which should be fairly straightforward with the Soyl system. We already use Soyl sense variable rate nitrogen applications as well as Soyl’s variable rate phosphate/potash service.”

The farm has a contract farming agreement with a pig unit, and handles around 5,500t of slurry each year. Towed behind the Fendt 939, a 16,000-litre capacity Joskin tanker applies the pig slurry through a 12m wide Kimaden dribble bar.

“Until investing in the big Joskin we operated a Major 2600 tanker with an overhead filler arm. We bought it in 2007 and in the same year we saved the cost of the tanker

— £26,000 — by reducing our potash requirement by £5,500, phosphate by £16,000 and urea by £6,000.”

Slurry is usually applied to the grass in two spring doses of 25m3/ha. It provides a path for the nitrogen and supplements the other nutrients, he comments. “Depending on how the rig travels, we’ll occasionally apply to standing wheat. On the 280ha block where slurry has now been applied for 12 years, we have used no bagged fertiliser and the indices are consistently twos and threes.”

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