Home » Issue 20-2020 » Farm report » Calculated risk: Agr’Estuaire, FR

Calculated risk

When Agr’Estuaire was converted to organic farming the focus was on the machinery park. For it plays a major role in the strategy of the farm - on the one hand, to optimise the working hours, on the other hand to finally concentrate on the crops that achieve a high added value.

Agr’Estuaire is situated north east of Bordeaux. From 25th of May until 12th of June 2020 the HORSCH Practical Field Days should have taken place at the farm. Maize and hoeing, the new single grain seed drills of the Maestro family and, of course, a farm tour would have been the main topics. Because of the Corona situation the event had to be cancelled.
Yoann Gauchery is an agricultural engineer. He is primarily responsible for running the farm which this year has completely been converted to organic farming. In 2015, Gauchery and four partners took over the farm with 880 ha of arable land. The farm was cultivated conventionally, rotation exclusively consisted of maize and hard wheat. Today the farm grows brewing barley on 45 ha, maize on 245 ha and soja on 570 ha. Weed control is mainly carried out mechanically. “We wanted to upgrade our production. This is the reason why after some discussions we decided to convert the farm to organic farming. Moreover, we were also tempted by the technical challenge. In this respect, all five partners think alike. Some of us already had fields, open land as well as under glass for growing vegetables, that had already been cultivated organically”, Yoann Gauchery explains.

Financial inputs

Getting the farm to where it is today, was a tough job. Agr’Estuaire is located right in the middle of the mouth of the Gironde, the soils are flat and swampy. After the farm had been taken over in 2015, the partner had to take quite an effort to, as a start, solve the main problem of the farm: water management. Compared to the time before the farm had been taken over, the effort was quadrupled – the objective was to optimise 200 ha per year for cultivation. Hard wheat was included in the rotation to continue the optimisation in summer as early as possible. Lime fertilisation contributed to increase the pH value in the upper 15 to 20 cm of the soil and the soil was loosened crosswise. Green Tillage was introduced to be able to sow maize earlier. A catch crop is sown in the future spacing and a ridge is created above the maize rows to make sure that the soil dries off quickly. Since the farm has been taken over ploughing has never been up for discussion.
“Aside from that we were well aware of the fact that the power supply and irrigation technology had to be updated. 97 % of our fields are irrigated. We even employ a mechatronic who is responsible for the irrigation systems and the maintenance of everything to do with electrics. This includes the maintenance of the tractors and the GPS systems“,  Yoann Gauchery adds.

Machines as the key factor of conversion

One of the biggest challenges when converting the farm to organic farming were the labour requirements. More than 90% of the rotation consists of irrigated spring crops. Thus, the required number of employees doubled: from one per 200 ha to one per 100 ha! It was possible to solve this problem by means of the working width of the machines, Controlled Traffic Farming and a new distribution of the fields. “During the peak season six employees are working on the farm – that’s one per 150 ha. Our fields are level, square and range between 30 to 100 ha. Another problem with organic farming are the tight climatic windows. In this respect, too, the larger working width of the machines solved the problem. If the conditions allow for it our machines work twenty-four-seven”, Yoann Gauchery points out.

“The previous owner cultivated the soil only superficially, but irrigation did considerable damage to the soil structure. We, therefore, decided to work more deeply to loosen the clay, to increase the surface that is available to the roots and thus to increase yields. If you go for an intensive cultivation, you also have to consider the load bearing capacity of the weak soils. Due to the introduction of catch crops and CTF we were able to solve this problem“, Yoann Gauchery says.
After the main crops as many catch crops as possible are sown to make sure that the soil is covered. More organic matter also increases the load bearing capacity of and the activity in the soil. Before the catch crops were sown in two passes. The Tiger DT re-created the soil structure and the Joker combined with a Partner tank was used to mix the soil superficially and to sow the catch crop mixture by means of broadcast sowing. This year, sowing was carried out in only one pass with the Tiger MT – equipped with discs and tines – which was combined with a Partner. It was used directly after the combine. The discs mix, the tines at the rear work deeply at 25 to 30 cm. The Terrano FG cuts the catch crops very short. The tines crush the material and the harrow distributes the residues on the surface. The Terrano works without a roller, thus the growth of weeds is prevented. According to requirements the Tiger MT and the Terrano FG work at different depth. Yoann Gauchery emphasises: ”Our strategy is: only few, but top machines. And we use them to maximum capacity!“

The revolution with CTF

“Like a lot of other farmers, we also came to know CTF at HORSCH events and demonstrations. We work with a 9 m track and the corresponding multiples. Our fields have been adapted to this system in an optimum way. Compaction on the fields, thus, can be reduced to the absolute minimum. The drivers use the pre-set tracks. Thus, we guarantee the best possible preservation of our main means of production: the soil“, the farm manager points out.
Agr’Estuaire opted for 9 m instead of 12 m as thus the weight of the machines better fits the load bearing capacity of the swampy soils. With this width, the distribution of straw and chaff behind the combine and the spreading of manure are better and more homogeneously, too.
As soon as the working width of the machines had been fixed, the biggest technical challenge was to lay the tracks. No field is exactly square and because of the topography of the swampy soils there partly is a ditch every 100 to 200 m. Therefore, there are two tracks in front of and behind these ditches. There is an average of five to seven tracks per field.
This system was established on all fields to facilitate the workflow for the employees to the greatest possible extent. In every tractor there is a summary of these CTF tracks. This allows for following them exactly and prevents that new tracks are created.

New technologies

“We use a Trimble GPS system and the Climate Field View software for mapping to monitor our fields in real time and to be able to make adaptions in case of changes or with regard to fertilising”, Yoann Gauchery explains and adds: “We thus can adapt the sowing density according to the irrigated and non-irrigated fields. A lot of data are recorded while sowing: sowing density, share of organic matter, soil humidity… They all are available on the iPad. That’s easy and useful.“

And what next? New crops…?

“Our objective is to continue as before while at the same time improving our strategy continuously. It is the first year we work completely organically. We want to adapt the path we struck with our technology to the so-called conventional crops: like maize, soya or barley. We want to take the time to concentrate on crops that get us a high economic added value”, Yoann Gauchery comments.
He continues: “Our rotation mainly consists of maize, this is why we are thinking about a possible diversification with varieties like sugar maize, popcorn maize or maize seeds. We manage the cultivation of this crop very well and the extension with different varieties would allow for increasing the added value and for using the irrigation system we already have. These crops, however, are even more demanding. They require considerable investments and increased effort. But we are also thinking about growing green beans or tomatoes.

We are constantly working on improving our systems. This is why, together with the chamber of agriculture of the department Gironde, we set up test fields for different soya varieties. On principle, we use about 10 ha for tests every year. We try for example to develop new catch crops like brewing barley combined with soya. We also have other ideas in the pipeline, like maize with a spacing of 1.5 m and a catch crop at the left and at the right side of the rows.“
Yoann Gauchery summarises the plans for the future as follows: ”As the partners provide a good mixture of interests, knowledge and experiences we hope that in five years we will be able to develop new crops and new systems and to pass our findings on to other farms.“