Mastenbroek: Drainage plan increases yields and reduces black-grass

John Haynes, farm manager at MJ & SC Collins, with the Mastenbroek trencher
John Haynes, farm manager at MJ & SC Collins, with the company’s Mastenbroek 30/20 trencher.

Farmers looking to increase yields, reduce inputs and reduce black-grass should follow the example set by MJ & SC Collins, says the technical sales engineer at Mastenbroek, Fred Clarke.

Operating near Harlow, Essex, MJ & SC Collins farms more than 3,000 acres across East Hertfordshire and West Essex. For almost 20 years it has operated a streamlined cropping plan of wheat, barley, winter and spring beans, and sugar beet that has helped the business grow significantly.

As well as the streamlined cropping plan, another significant factor that has played in the family business’ growth is a proactive drainage plan developed with Mastenbroek and Trimble.

MJ & SC Collins’ relationship with Mastenbroek began in 2015 when it was facing waterlogging of its land at Lysander Park, an area of 1,400 acres that was used as an airfield during World War II.

The presence of redundant underground services meant the area was never drained in the 1980s and 1990s. MJ & SC Collins’ farm manager, John Haynes, and his team realised that the significant amount of waterlogging severely affected the performance of otherwise fertile soils. As well as being unable to travel on the fields in early spring, the waterlogging was encouraging the growth of black-grass.

In 2015, Mr Haynes contacted Fred Clarke at Mastenbroek to find out more about how Trimble GPS technology would work with a tractor-mounted trencher.

“We knew we had to improve the drainage on Lysander Park, but weren’t completely sure how to go about it,” he says. “We had heard about Mastenbroek’s partnership with Trimble and the GPS solutions they were offering, so got in touch.

“We wanted to make the process as quick and easy as possible. We also wanted to know that we were making the right decisions and create the best possible drainage system for our land. This wasn’t our area of expertise at the time, so we approached Mastenbroek.”

Mr Clarke installed a Trimble GPS depth control system for the tractor-mounted trencher.

“By installing the Trimble GPS and RTK technology on to their AFT 100 trencher, we gave them the ability to use Trimble’s Water Management Software to create and install their own drainage schemes,” he says.

“After four years, in which they improved the drainage on 380 acres and started to pick up drainage contract work for nearby farms, they realised that their set up of an AFT 100 and a 14t gravel cart was not as fast as what could be achieved by Mastenbroek’s latest self-propelled trenchers. So, Mr Haynes got in touch again.”

MJ & SC Collins took delivery of a Mastenbroek 30/20 in November 2018 and it was immediately put to work on fields that hadn’t had their drainage systems improved since they were installed in the 1970s.

“The Mastenbroek 30/20 trebled our output, taking us from an average of 800 to 1,000 metres a day to nearly 3,000 metres depending on the scheme,” Mr Haynes says. “Since carrying out the land drainage, we have noticed several benefits.

“The number of earthworms in the soil is increasing significantly, and the soil is much healthier. Drainage is key to unlocking the full potential of what can be achieved through reduced cultivation, compost and sewage sludge application. I describe it as a christmas tree in terms of the shape and magnitude of each level. So, the base – the widest branches – is the drainage followed by soil structure, organic matter, cultivation, nitrogen use and input reduction.”

While Mr Haynes can’t precisely quantify the benefit of improved nitrogen use efficiency to his yields, he’s adamant that applying nitrogen early is critical for both encouraging tillering and growth, as well as ensuring the urea they use as nitrogen gets into the crop early. He estimates that unless it’s a very dry winter, he gets onto the drained fields a week to 10 days earlier than before.

Part of the reason for the earlier access is the improved soil structure following the drainage.

“The fields we’ve drained dry out much quicker than the older schemes, and when moling is up to date, the soil structure is so much more resilient,” he adds. “We can cultivate sooner in the spring but, crucially, later into the autumn. The soil is more friable and requires less intense cultivation.”

Perhaps the most significant impact of the drainage work undertaken MJ & SC Collins is the reduction in black-grass. Mr Haynes and the team have gone from blanket spraying with herbicide to targeting small areas and following up with hand roguing in the summer.

“We’re probably saving about £15,000 a year on wheat herbicides alone!” he says. “I would say, depending on dormancy in a specific year, we have reduced black-grass on our recently drained fields by 70 per cent.”