'Eight years into implementing a zero-till policy across the farm, we’re seeing improved yields of 10 tonnes per hectare for our first year wheat, and five tonnes per hectare on winter beans. We’ve also noticed that we continue to see year-on-year improvements to soil structure and crop yields.
“The winter beans have been extremely valuable in the rotation to ensure nitrogen and biomass return to the land.”
Having worked for West Woodhay Farms for 28 years, Mr Cath has been farm manager for eight years, and understands the importance of using a combination of methods for slug control particularly since the tillage change.
The decision to move to zero-till was not taken lightly, but was driven by high fuel and labour costs, twinned with limitations on the overall productivity of the land.
“However, we soon had to learn to manage slug pressure with some areas of the farm becoming un-productive due to the pest.
“We decided to drop oilseed rape completely from our rotation in an attempt to reduce slug populations in the cereal crops.'
Working closely with Thames Water, Mr Cath also took the decision to move to a ferric phosphate slug pellet two years ago and he hasn't looked back. 'It's a much more flexible slug control method, which is especially pertinent to us as we're farming in a vulnerable water catchment area, and I need to be able to treat all the field to keep on top of slug numbers at high risk times.”
With slug pressure under control, the radical change of focus to zero-till across the estate has now been deemed a huge success and has resulted in award recognition for the team at West Woodhay Farms just last year. They were praised with the prestigious land and soil management award from the European Landowners’ Organisation.
'We were commended on building organic matter, and drastically improving soil biology,' explains Mr Cath. 'Integrating grass into the rotation and avoiding wind and water erosion on our marginal land was also recognised as being a success.
“Three-year grass leys have been key in helping to control black-grass and improve soil structure. We're also increasing the number of sheep on the estate for grazing and topping, which means we don't remove any organic matter. So far it seems to be proving a valuable addition to our rotation.”
Mr Cath, who does his own agronomy and is BASIS qualified, considers cultural control methods to be the most effective in managing slug populations.
“The mix of direct drilling combined with dropping oilseed rape from our rotation, and rolling twice after planting have all had a significant impact on slug control. I really feel we’re getting on top of it now, and have a good system in place.
'Rolling is a really cost-effective method, ensuring there aren’t any places for slugs to hide - we have a wide set of rollers, and even with doing two passes, it only costs us £17.30 per hectare. And as a result we’ve been able to reduce our input costs, which was one of our initial aims.
“Combined with my cultural control methods, using a ferric phosphate slug pellet such as Sluxx HP has given me more flexibility in how we protect both the wheat and cover crops, and the system is definitely working, which is exciting.
“I walk the fields every day to look for signs of slug eggs, trails and grazing and make a judgement call on the deemed risk to the crop.
'If needed, I apply one max dose of pellets - 7kg per hectare of Sluxx HP - and I know that it works. However, with ferric phosphate, you don't see dead slugs on the surface unlike metaldehyde, but you can notice the level of surface grazing drops right down, and the crops will pick up and grow on.
“For example, this year we drilled maize game cover directly into stubble. I carefully monitored the crop following the wet spring we experienced earlier in the year, and took the decision to make two applications of pellets. Now the crops are growing fine.
'Farmers need to have confidence the pellets are working, and understand the key differences compared to metaldehyde.'
Mr Cath understands the importance of making sure the whole farm operation is on board and would give the following advice to farmers who are concerned about slug control with direct drilling.
“Think about your rotations and don’t be nervous about trying something a bit different. Make sure your seed beds are tight and be prepared to go for it.”