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.
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.
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
“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 moneyElise 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.
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.
“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.