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Indestructible on difficult terrain

Henning Stapelbroek has been at the head of a large farm in Saxony-Anhalt for two and a half years. In this challenging location, he has converted the whole farm over to no-till. His most important machine for this task: a Novag 650 T-Force-Plus.

Being open for challenges and unusual concepts – this is what differentiates Henning Stapelbroek. Both characteristics are well needed in his job. The 29-year-old has been in charge of 1,300-hectares of arable farming at the agricultural cooperative in Tangermünde/Buch in Saxony-Anhalt since 2020.

But unlike in the nearby Magdeburger Börde, the site conditions around Tangermünde near the Elbe are anything but optimal for successful crop cultivation. Water is a scarce commodity in the region, with an average of just under 500 millimetres of precipitation per year. In addition, the soils are extremely heterogeneous, ranging from light sandy soils to heavy clay.

No-till as the only alternative

“If you want to farm economically here, you can only really do it with no-till,” Stapelbroek says. His approach: the cultivation costs for cereals must not be higher than the income he achieves with yields of two tonnes per hectare. That is the minimum yield he achieves even in very dry years.

It was, therefore, clear when he took up his post, that the entire arable land was to be cultivated only by direct seeding. Stapelbroek brought with him the necessary experience for this. On his farm during training and in his previous employment, he had already worked a lot with no-till farming methods.

Stapelbroek’s most important machine is a Novag 650 T-Force-Plus with a working width of six metres and 24 coulters with 25 centimetres row spacing. The farmer particularly appreciates the robustness of the machine, which is needed on the heavy soils directly on the Elbe in order to safely maintain the sowing depth.

“With the introduction of no-till, we have completely turned crop production around,” Stapelbroek explains. The crop rotation, for example, has been significantly expanded. In addition to various cereals, he now grows grain maize, oilseed rape, sunflowers, field beans and peas. Intercrops are the rule for almost all crops and fertilisation has also been adapted. There is no longer a plough furrow.

One machine for all crops

Novag is used for no-till drilling of all crops, whether winter rape, maize or field beans. So far, the machine has convinced him on many levels. “It starts with the fact that there is no hairpinning, even with large amounts of straw,” says Stapelbroek. “The seeds always have good soil contact and do not get stuck in the coarse organic material.”

It is particularly important for him that the machine copes well with the extremely varied, sometimes very hard soils. In his experience, this is where the IntelliForcePlus electronic coulter pressure adjustment, which continuously optimises the pressure depending on the soil resistance, proves its worth.

Stapelbroek can follow this function via the Novag display in the tractor cab. “It’s crazy how the pressure jumps back and forth on our sites,” he reports. “It often ranges from 80 bar to a maximum pressure of 200 bar, even on small sites. Without automatic coulter pressure adjustment, the sowing depth would definitely not be so uniform.”

Maize seeding is the supreme discipline

According to Stapelbroek the machine plays out its advantages especially in maize sowing – the supreme discipline of no-till. This is because maize needs a well loosened, warm soil, especially in the start-up phase; and the Novag technology creates optimal conditions for this, whether on moist or dry soils.

To start with, he still used a single grain drill for sowing maize, until he had a kind of key experience last year. With the onset of rain, he had to stop sowing with the single grain drill on heavy soil. He sowed the rest of the area with the Novag machine. “Even though we didn’t separate the grains, the plants in these areas were much more vigorous later on and the maize stood much better than on the conventionally tilled areas.”

Stapelbroek attributes this to the fact that the discs of the single grain drill strongly compact the soil area around the seed, especially in moist, heavy soils. This delays warming and makes rooting more difficult. In contrast, when depositing with the Novag T-slot coulter, there is virtually no compaction in this sensitive area.

Separating with the Novag maize kit

Based on his good experience, during the year he sowed the entire 80 hectares of grain maize on heavy soils with the Novag. For this purpose, he added the Novag maize kit to the machine, with which the grains can be separated before placement. Even if the placement quality does not quite reach the level of a single grain drill, Henning Stapelbroek is satisfied with the result.

In the current season, however, he has had to struggle with completely different conditions. The soil was very dry and hard at the time of sowing. “I wouldn’t even have been able to get into the soil with the single grain drill” Stapelbroek says. The Novag also reached its limits with the placement depth of five centimetres. “But we managed to get a clean placement. And where the Novag can’t get in, no direct seed drill can get in,” Stapelbroek says.

Another point that the farmer appreciates about the Novag is its variability. “The machine simply offers an incredible number of possibilities,” Stapelbroek says. “If you want to use them, it’s brilliant.” And he wants to use these possibilities. Depending on the crop, he is always experimenting with different undersown crops or intercrop mixtures. This is made possible by a variable system with exchangeable seed tanks and individually adjustable sowing coulters, with which each crop can be placed at the optimal sowing depth.

Four tanks with four different components

He makes full use of these diverse adjustment options, especially when sowing oilseed rape. In addition to the fine rape seeds, he applies an intercrop mixture as a companion seed, underground fertilisation, and slug pellets, either on the surface or in the soil, in a single operation. “And everything ends up exactly where it belongs,” Stapelbroek says happily. “That’s no mean feat – using four tanks with four different components at the same time.”

With winter cereals, too, he has already achieved initial successes with his no-till concept and the Novag. After two years of cultivation, he has already observed a clear reduction in the presence of brome, the farm’s problematic weed in cereals. Stapelbroek attributes this to the no-till system. Since Novag only makes a slot in the soil and hardly moves it during sowing, no new brome seeds reach the top. As most of the seeds in the upper soil layers have meanwhile emerged, the presence of brome is on the decrease.

No more sandstorms in the village

The neighbours in the village have also noticed another effect of no-till. In the first year of cultivation with the Novag, they wondered why no more sandstorms were passing through the village in summer. Such sandstorms had been common until then because the large, conventionally tilled areas, which were open for a long time, were susceptible to wind erosion.

Henning Stapelbroek is not surprised: “With no-till, the soil is much better protected, either by an intercrop or a mulch overlay.” In addition, there are the crop production advantages of the method. “With no-till, we definitely have more water in the soil. The mulch just massively lowers evaporation,” Stapelbroek says. That is why, according to his observations, the crops last several days longer than conventionally sown crops during persistent drought.

More earthworms, better soil structure

The soil structure is also showing initial changes after just two years of cultivation. Stapelbroek: “We have many more earthworms on our land than before the introduction of no-till.” He also observes that the soil is developing an increasingly better fermentation due to the excretions of the microorganisms in the upper topsoil. “You can start working the land much earlier now, the soil is more robust and doesn’t stick,” Stapelbroek says.

Word of the many positive developments has now spread to neighbouring farms, and interest in no-till is high. Stapelbroek receives more and more enquiries for the Novag. This year alone, he has already cultivated more than 200 hectares under contract. He sees this as a confirmation of his concept: “In my opinion, there is no way around no-till in dry regions like ours. It is the only sensible, sustainable way here.”

Cost-covering, even in dry years

He explicitly includes the economic efficiency of the Novag. At driving speeds of eight to ten kilometres per hour, it achieves an area output of up to four hectares per hour. In addition, the costs and labour required for ploughing and cultivating to prepare the seedbed are eliminated. “With the plough, it would not be possible to cover costs in very dry years,” Stapelbroek says.

So far, he has already achieved the same yields with no-till as with earlier conventional tillage – but with significantly less effort. However, he assumes that even higher yields can be achieved with increasing humus content and increasingly better soil fertility.

To this end, the farmer, who is keen to experiment, is already nurturing further ideas on how crop rotation, intercrops, undersown crops and underground fertilisation can be combined even better. “With the Novag, I have exactly the right machine for experimenting,” Stapelbroek says and laughs.

Flipping a switch in your head

Lutz Decker from Bierbergen in Niedersachen’s idea is to sell his own CO²-free certified milk at the same price as oat or soy milk by 2026. He discovered his passion for conservation agriculture on the path to this goal and in 2019 became Novag’s first customer in Germany.

“I didn’t buy the Novag 640 back then to be able to offer CO²-neutral milk seven years later. I didn’t have THAT big a plan. But then one thing led to another”, emphasises the farmer (44 years-old). On the edge of the Hildesheim Börde with its very fertile soil (80-100 soil points), Lutz Decker, together with his wife Anke and 19 employees, manages a conventional farm with 230 hectares of cultivation and permanent pastures as well as 500 head of cattle, 270 of which are dairy cows. Additionally, he manages a 3 MW biogas plant with his brother-in-law Jan van Leeuwen for which he supervises around 60 farmers in matters of sowing, fermentation residue return and harvesting on a contract basis. Lutz Decker studied Economic and Social Sciences of Agriculture in Kiel, entered the family farm business in 2010 and took it over in 2018. “After 13 years of biogas with intensive soil cultivation and slurry fertilisation, as well as catch crops for animal feed, we observed progressive soil compaction and increasing deficiency symptoms in the crops – especially in silage maize, despite our good soils and sufficient nutrients,” he explains.

Fertilisation according to Kinsey

It was whilst searching for a solution, that he first came across fertilisation according to Kinsey. This set the ball rolling and by 2019 Lutz Decker had tested all his lands, including pastureland using the Kinsey way and has been fertilising it accordingly since. “Inevitably I found out about the legendary long-term trial ‘Oberacker’ in Switzerland” he recalls. Since 1994 the cropping systems no-till and ploughing, as well as the standard and Kinsey fertilisation systems have been compared side-by-side there. “The Kinsey fertilisation combined with no-till performs best in terms of yield and quality. The Kinsey claim, that it doesn’t matter whether the soil was worked or not, strengthened my idea of reducing the processing steps and mechanisation intensity. This ultimately led to me investing in a prototype of today´s Novag TF 640 in 2019 and by the autumn sowing of the same year, I started to convert our whole farm to the conservation agriculture’s no-till cultivation system”, he explains. Until then, he and his father had tilled the land using the standard method with a previous plough furrow or the mulch sowing method. In the meantime, it is his fourth no-till autumn sowing.

Rethinking required

A change to the new cultivation method required him, above all, to flip a switch in his head because he, too, had received the classical teachings on fertilisation, soil cultivation and seedbed preparation during his studies.

The FAO definition bases conservation agriculture on three main principles: a minimal mechanical tillage of the soil within defined limits, an organic mulch cover of at least 30% immediately after direct sowing, and a range of crops that includes at least three species in the crop rotation.

„Our crop rotation includes sugar beet, maize, cereal GPS and a small proportion of soybeans. Almost the entire silage maize goes to feed the cows and the cereal GPS, usually triticale, goes into the biogas plant. Between the main cultures, depending on whether a winter or summer harvest is following, we establish one or maybe even two catch crops and sow maize and sugar beet directly in the existing biomass”, explains the farmer. His goal is to create a mulch cover thick enough to protect the cultivated field from desiccation, weed infestation and erosion, which also cools it down and feeds the worms. He plants legume-containing, as well as free mixtures, or even rye as catch crops. “Having said that, this year, due to a feed-shortage, we decided to harvest the catch crop for cattle feed”, he admitted.

Defying high resistance

No-till isn’t a very attractive form of farming and has been called ‘ugly farming’. “The died-off catch crops can be so thick in spring that they significantly delay the growth of young maize plants on our heavy soils. The plants usually recover by August but as a farmer you have to be able to endure it”, Lutz Decker points out, but actually he wants to focus on his technique: “For no-till, you need a seeder that deposits the seed of the following crop cleanly in the soil through a layer of mulch of any thickness, even if the soil is heavy, as it is here. This is one of the strengths of the Novag. With a coulter pressure of up to 500 kg, it even overcomes soil compaction in the track and its sowing discs cut deeper than the seed horizon, so I don’t have to worry about ‘hair-pinning’.”

The power requirement depends on the condition of the soil and on which tools are used. He himself has a 300 hp tractor in front of a 6 m seeder, but it is noticeable that the work becomes easier with each year because the soil is healthy and increasingly stable. “As a livestock farm with heavy soils, our biggest challenge in arable farming is the high cargo volumes and weights. To overcome the high resistance in the soil during the first years of conversion, we need the technology from Novag,” farmer Decker is convinced. Additionally, he manages the soil load via a Controlled Traffic Farming system (CTF) and tyre pressure control technology.

Simple and safe operation

He only rarely sits on the machines himself and places importance on a simple and safe handling and operating of the technology for his drivers. This was another reason to choose Novag. He is referring to their IntelliForce system for intelligent, automatic coulter pressure control and depth guidance. “As the Novag was the first imported machine, we were conducting something like a field trial,” he smiles and praises the Novag team which has greatly supported him from the very beginning. He still gets replacements parts from the factory in France. They arrive, however, within two days and this will continue to improve with the opening of the new Novag sales subsidiary in Hanover. Over time, he has adapted details on his prototype of the Novag TF 640 with 25 cm row spacing: “For sugar beet sowing, for example, we have replaced the originally corrugated seed hoses with smooth and thinner ones, thereby improving seed transport from separation to the coulters. The separation performance of the Novag is sufficient for us. The T-form of the seed coulters in combination with the deep disc cut are more important to me when planting green than a perfect separation of the seeds.”

Six-metre working widths are oversized for his own arable farming, which is why he also uses his Novag on other farms and achieves an annual utilisation of just under 700 ha. His team manages an average of three hectares per hour. “Two of our no-till customers are consistently following conservation agriculture like us”, he reports, although he does not consider himself to be a missionary of this type of farming concept. “It requires a complete transition and no-till is much more than mechanically planting seeds in an unworked soil. It’s about developing nutrient dynamics in the soil as well as improving and stabilising soil structure” explains farmer Decker.

Collecting Experience

He sees the fine-grained “cottage cheese structure”, which is already beginning to develop on many areas, as proof that the calculation is working. The changeover has, however, also cost him money. Today he recommends adjusting the fertilisation of the land before starting no-till: „In the autumn of 2019 I tried it the other way round on some areas. These seedings were clearly more difficult. In the cool, moist and firm soil, they were lacking the mineralisation that Kinsey fertilisation provides.” He cannot completely explain all the effects, but in the meantime, he has observed a clear difference between autumn and spring seedings, to which he also believes he has an answer.

Whilst autumn tillage has always been unproblematic so far, he has already got a black eye twice with spring tillage – the first time in 2020 and again this year. “Both times the seeding conditions were optimal but then no rain fell for about four weeks” he remembers. For autumn tillage from “dry to wet”, no-till works without problems, he explains, referring to the soil condition at and after sowing. Conversely, i.e. under wet sowing conditions, some soils may crack in the area of the seed slit in the event of a subsequent long dry spell. “Clay soils shrink when they lose water. This year, due to the spring drought, the Novag seed slits split open up to 1 cm wide. This can lead to germination delays or worse, as in our sugar beet this year, the seed germinates but slugs or other pests use the open seed slot as a food highway,” he explains.

The expansion joint idea

The Novag isn’t the problem. Compared to no-till seeders from other manufacturers, it leaves a narrow slit. “We now want to retro fit it with Thompson wheels. These are star-shaped, V-shaped discs that we mount instead of the pressure rollers. They should cut the soil 5 cm to the left and right of the seed slot to a depth of 3 cm to relieve the area in between. We hope for an effect like that of an expansion joint when laying tiles,” reveals Lutz Decker.

This year, he expects a yield loss of around 20 % in the beet and is considering applying slug pellets in parallel to the next sowing as a precaution. For the simultaneous application of different types of seed, fertiliser or slug pellets, his Novag has four seed tanks. Unseeded areas and slug damage are not the only problems in his beets, however. There was subsequently a lack of shade and he is currently facing a full-blown late weed infestation, for which he does not yet have a real solution.
Nevertheless, he does not question his cultivation method and is very enthusiastic: “My soils are developing positively everywhere. In the last four years, I have spent more time in my field than ever before. It is very exciting to observe how the soil and the plant react when you make adjustments here or there.

Reduced use of pesticides

Then, as a farmer sooner or later you reach the point where you dare to leave out certain measures.  In the case of cereals, I quickly realised that with no-till I could omit the herbicide and, as a result, also the fungicides and growth regulators. By not moving soil, we do not stimulate existing seed potential to germinate. After sugar beet and maize, we have succeeded in growing cereals without synthetic chemical pesticides for the second year in a row, and largely without reduced yields. For this purpose, we sow a cereal-vetch mixture on the day of the pre-crop harvest,” explains Lutz Decker and admits that vetch can reduce yields if it develops too much. But in return, as I said, we save on the use of pesticides. We want to disturb the soil as little as possible, not only mechanically but also chemically,” he argues. For him, however, doing without pesticides altogether is definitely not an option. For the future use of glyphosate, he hopes for an authorisation for no-till, as is already the case in France.

Next Step: Reduced fertilisation

He started the conversion to no-till with the idea of harvesting the same or more. He also achieves this in the winter sowings. However, spring sowings followed by a long dry period can lead to sensitive lower yields of up to 30 per cent on his soils. “So far, however, we have at least been in the black every year due to the savings in costs for soil cultivation, fuel, labour and crop protection,” summarises Lutz Decker.

Next, he wants to tackle the reduction of fertiliser intensity. Fertilisation according to Kinsey also has a positive effect on the health of ruminants – provided that the nutrient ratio in soil, feed and organic fertiliser is balanced. “I strive for as closed a nutrient cycle as possible for my farm. For example, I plan to produce all of our own cattle feed with maize and soybeans in the near future, to dry both crops with the waste heat from our biogas plant and to toast the soybeans. In combination with our defensive land management using the no-till method, we can achieve the necessary CO² savings for the cow’s milk certification we are aiming for,” says the dairy farmer in explaining his vision.