Saving costs with the right strategy

This is a topic of ever-growing concern for French farmers: how can they strate­gi­cally reduce their inputs costs. Three exam­ples from Sainte-Thorette, Berchères-les-Pierres and Roville-devant-Bayon show what leeway today’s price condi­tions leave and how farmers are using it.

Farmers and agron­o­mists working hand in hand

In north-eastern France, Paul Cham­pouillon and his fathers farm in part­ner­ship at Gaec des Tissages near Nancy in the tradi­tional region of Lorraine. Running a 120-cow milking herd, the duo manage their dairy enter­prise along­side an arable oper­a­tion.

“I am fortu­nate to share a way of thinking with my father,” says 22-year old Paul. Joining his father on the farm last year, Paul could see that there were issues with the arable rota­tion. The ploughed wheat, barley, and oilseed rape system seemed exhausted, he explains. “We were seeing major weeding issues requiring signif­i­cant working time. We found ourselves always having to acquire increas­ingly powerful trac­tors to work the ground, which is not tenable over the long term.”

When people ask me about the costsI answer that I invest at least €80/ha in my plant cover.

Paul Cham­pouillon


Concerned about regen­er­ating the soil, Paul sort out agro­nomic exper­tise from the inde­pen­dent consul­tant Agroleague. Working together with an agron­o­mist, the Cham­pouil­lons decided to switch from ploughing to direct drilling as much ground as possible, they also decided to extend the rota­tion and, above all, estab­lish perma­nent cover.

Mixture of vari­eties of covers selected by Paul Cham­pouillon: sunflower, beans, mustard, buck­wheat…

The cessa­tion of ploughing was only effec­tive for cereals and rape­seed crops, with the duo being more cautious about the maize and, temporarily at least, choosing strip-till as a more reli­able method of tillage for the crop.

Plant cover is achieved using an inter­cul­ture mixture of sunflower, beans, mustard, and buck­wheat. “Agroleague convinced me to diver­sify my inter­cul­ture mixtures.“When people ask me about the costs, I tell them that I invest at least €80/ha into my plant cover,” he explains. Adding that the cost of fertiliser is offset by his dairy cows providing valu­able organic manure, which is applied at a rate of 25 to 30 tonnes per plot, bien­ni­ally.


Paul imple­mented Haney testing last spring after real­ising it could provide useful insights to the farm’s soil biology and help improve nutrient plan­ning and effi­ciences.

The Haney test gives the Cham­pouil­lons infor­ma­tion on their soils’ level of organic mate­rial, cation exchange capacity, and biolog­ical activity. “What inter­ested me was having a simple indi­cator to measure the evolu­tion of soil health,” he says.

And with recent advance­ments, the test now offers an addi­tional measure of soil health – micro­bial respi­ra­tion – at an afford­able cost over the tradi­tional analyses.

Self-built, this narrow-tine direct-seeding seeder on a paral­lel­o­gram is satis­fying due to its simplicity, its robust­ness and its ability to cause minimal disrup­tion of the soil.

For Paul and his father, the test – when used along­side other indi­ca­tors of biolog­ical activity like micro­bial active carbon (MAC), and Organic nitrogen: Organic carbon ratio – combined with a collab­o­ra­tive rela­tion­ship with their agron­o­mist, provides the duo with the infor­ma­tion they need to make better informed deci­sions, and to reduce their reliance on nitrogen-based fertilisers.

With our agron­o­mist we’re contin­uing to look at ways in which to reduce the levels of nitrogen-based fertiliser, from the recom­men­da­tions of the Haney test, he explains.

Successful ground cover for successful cultivation

Elise Korcaba has taken over the farm from her father Eric in Sainte-Thorette, in the vicinity of Bourges (Cher).

“It seems to me that, compared with 1992, when uncer­tainty about CAP aid was at its height, the price situ­a­tion was not as brutal as it is today,” Eric Korcaba recalls. Back then, the farmer had, like many others, simpli­fied his farming methods. With his daughter Elise now heading up the family farm, they have started to focus on agronomy to give their farm better resilience.

“We remember 2016 as a very diffi­cult year,” Eric continues. “I chal­lenged every­thing we’d been doing in the search for savings. I became the only worker for the whole 350ha! “That diffi­cult period, when every­thing was sown using a 3m trailed combine, was also the starting point for a diver­si­fi­ca­tion of crop rota­tion, involving up to a dozen winter and spring crops.

In our medium reserve fields, the perma­nent covers are a way of testing options for saving money

Elise Korcaba

A tradi­tion of gross margin manage­ment

Elise Korcaba, Eric’s only daughter, initially tok a very different path, having become a notary. When it became possible to increase the farm size by approx­i­mately 90ha, she began to study farming and took over the oper­a­tion. Distrib­uted over four blocks of land, the Korcaba’s farm comprises 420ha of hetero­ge­neous soils. Some of the blocks are loamy, while others are clay, or even stony. Tradi­tion­ally, the farm has a large storage capacity (1,200t). In this area, far from ports and processing indus­tries, where, addi­tion­ally, returns are limited, it’s almost as if one has to manage one’s gross margins right down to the euro. “My father’s expe­ri­ence is invalu­able with respect to manage­ment,” Elise says, displaying her mastery of Excel tables.

Cover, certainly, but diver­si­fied! Rape­seed has been sown here, along­side the beerseem clover, the flax, the fenu­greek, lentils…

An agri­cul­tural path through plant cover

Eric and Elise Korcaba share a love of agronomy and meet­ings. That is how Elise found a sharp and willing adviser in Agroleague’s Astrid Cassaz. Last year, his growers tested rape­seed in asso­ci­a­tion with faba bean, as a companion plant against frost. The results were encour­aging: 25sqm/ha and, above all, only 320 euros in oper­ating costs, i.e., very little weeding and a single insec­ti­cide pass for the stem weevil.

Since then, Astrid Cassaz has pushed for more diver­sity in the companion plant mixture. ‘Succeeding with the cover means succeeding with rape­seed’ has become the slogan here.

The fine tine seeder Eric and Elise Korcaba’s favourite, thanks to its performance/price ratio. It is fed by a frontal hopper with a double-dosing device, one for the sowing and the other to allow for inex­pen­sive fertil­i­sa­tion (elemental sulfur or phos­phorus).

“With our mois­ture reserves being less than phenomenal,we have to capture the mois­ture right behind the combine by direct seeding, without displacing too much of the soil during sowing,”.says Else Korcaba.  “To main­tain a reason­able pace of sowing, limit the number of working hours, and simplify our road move­ments, we are consid­ering moving to a six metre folding seeder.”

Following the same agro­nomic common thread, for the sunflowers next spring, the farm at Sainte Thorette will be rolling out a test of sowing under perma­nent cover, prob­ably a clover, which will benefit next winter’s grains at the level of the soil struc­ture and by providing nitrogen.

Better yields and quality through variety mixtures

It’s a number that could have come as a surprise: with 17.5% of the areas sown in 2021, the mixing of vari­eties of soft winter wheat has dethroned the flag­ship variety, Chevi­gnon, at 13%. Co-ops and trading compa­nies, initially reti­cent, are now offering ready-to-seed mixtures. More evidence that the growers are seeing the advan­tages of this prac­tice, which orig­i­nated in the field.

In soft wheat, and also in barley, the mixing of vari­eties has become common­place.

Francis Brault

While clar­i­fying that he is not a specialist in variety mixtures, Francis Brault wanted to share his expe­ri­ence with us, as well as the savings that planting by means of a rather unique strip-till seeder deliv­ered.

Bundling genes of interest

Francis Brault uses less common tillage and seeding equip­ment. But when he has to choose his wheat or barley vari­eties, he seems to listen to his co-op, Bonneval Beauce-et-Perche, which has a very well-respected agro­nomic depart­ment. In a video from 2021, a tech­ni­cian from that organ­i­sa­tion put paid to a well-estab­lished idea: no mixture of two tolerant vari­eties could remedy the sensi­tivity of a third variety to one disease or another. A more suit­able approach would be to bundle some genes of interest: with equal precocity, the mixture of vari­eties further evens out yields and quality, with less pouring, more consis­tent protein levels, and a more stable specific weight.

It has become more common­place

“This year, I have a mixture of three soft wheat vari­eties: Chevi­gnon, Extase and Junior,” Francis Brault says. “For winter feed barley, they are KWS Joyau, KWS Exquis and Amistar.” Francis believes that these mixtures are likely to be less depen­dent on fungi­cides and on their windows of appli­ca­tion, which are tricky depending on the year. The sowing density of the mixtures, at 280 grains/m2, is slightly higher, to take account of the surface condi­tion when working on a strip-till plot. If he sows mixtures of the three vari­eties of alfalfa equally, however, in better wheat (variety Izalco), his beauceron will stay “pure”. On 18 November, he will only have six hectares of winter fava beans to plant.

Cracking and tine sowing, it’s the pair of oper­a­tions in a single passage that Francis Brault appre­ci­ates on his Claydon-brand strip-till seeder.

The large inter-row is easier to hoe.

Time savings per hectare with the strip-till

In fact, more than a tine seeder, it’s a system that Francis Brault adopted three years ago, and only for 120ha. Expert with a 30cm inter-row and with a seeder that has burst on the line, Francis Brault is now inter­ested in hoeing his grains, in case his ‘bad plants’ become resis­tant to current herbi­cides. That line spacing also results in a crop that is more aerated, recovers better after rain­fall, and is better able to defend itself against fungi.

During harvest, it oper­ates at high speed (using less than 2 l/ha of diesel fuel) with a 7.5m wide straw harrow, in order to lacerate the crop residues, level them out and prepare stale seedbeds. When the time comes, his three-metre seeder, with soil cracking tines (adjustable to a depth of 17cm) at the front of the seeding tines, the strip-till enthu­siast obtains a work rate of 15ha/day, and the seeding work is carried out in a single pass.

“The time savings are consid­er­able and I am less stressed about the weather; what’s more, my soil improves steadily,” he says. “Where I used to absolutely need a 6-cylinder tractor to crack and sow, this year, I am able to do it all with my new 4-cylinder.”

 That is time that Francis can devote to an ambi­tious family project: producing wheat flour on the farm and, with the assis­tance of one of the two Brault sons, who is a grad­uate baker, to sell it. That evolu­tion is consis­tent with having earned his High Envi­ron­mental Value certifi­cate level 3 last July. At SIMA, father and son Brault spent more time next to the flour mills than they did at the stands of soil and seeding equip­ment manu­fac­turers.