How to achieve better crop establishment

February 25th, 2022

Agronomist Jonathan Holmes lists the top four tips growers should consider to achieve quicker crop establishment

Achieving robust crop establishment at the start of the season is key to a profitable crop. The sooner growers can get seedlings above ground, the earlier crops can begin to grow and develop.

A deciding factor for achieving quick crop establishment is getting seed with good germination and vigour, in the ground in the right place and at the right time.

Many growers will work around the weather at drilling to ensure crop establishment is taking place under optimum conditions. However, there are other elements to consider that can impact crop establishment.

In this blog, Jonathan Holmes discusses the four crucial factors growers should consider if they want to improve crop establishment. These include:

  • Balancing warmth and moisture
  • The impacts of seed treatments
  • Minimum tillage
  • Cover crops

The importance of warmth and moisture for crop establishment

Both soil warmth and moisture have a big impact on crop establishment.



A good supply of water within the soil profile is important for crop establishment. This is because water helps to rehydrate seeds and allows nutrition to move from the soil into the seedling, via a process called mass flow.

Machinery and cultivation can impact moisture levels within the soil. If soil is undisturbed with little cultivation, it is protected from wind erosion which means moisture is better retained within the soil profile.

However, heavy ploughing churns up the soil profile, exposing it to the wind which can lead to a significant loss of moisture, as well as volatilising the soil organic matter, and destroying the microflora and fauna within the soil.

In addition to this, the weather conditions themselves also play an integral part. For example, if the summer has been particularly dry, moisture levels will already be limited. And, if heavy ploughing is used in this situation, it can exacerbate moisture loss and severely impact crop establishment.

Water is a precious resource which will need to be protected in the coming years and will become a focus within agricultural policy. So, its important growers look to retain soil moisture as much as possible in the future by reducing cultivation.



Seeds require warmth in the soil to germinate after drilling, as warmth promotes growth. If soil temperatures are below 15 degrees C, seeds can struggle to develop.

Because of this, many growers will drill OSR, for example, as early as possible to ensure better crop establishment. Drilling OSR early also helps to reduce the risks from cabbage stem flea beetle which are in abundance during the autumn, as they have little else to feed on.

Jonathan says growers should ideally drill after a period of warmth as the soils will be in a better position to support crop establishment.

Ideally soils should be between 15 to 20 degrees C for optimum germination. Growers should use a soil thermometer to better understand the temperature of their soil.


The impacts of seed treatments on crop establishment

Seed treatments are widely used in the arable sector to protect seedlings growing in adverse environments, but Jonathan warns that all seed treatments have the potential to delay crop emergence.

Trials have shown that untreated seeds have been able to get out of the ground in five to seven days post drilling, whereas seeds which have undergone treatments can take up to fourteen days to emerge.

Treated seeds can also get damp in the hopper which can lead to blockages in the drill. This can lead to rows being missed and significant costs sorting the problem.

Jonathan advises that if growers can do without seed treatments, it can be beneficial for establishment and will also help to save on input costs.

If growers do use seed treatments, it’s a good idea to conduct seed germination and vigour testing as this will help ensure the seed is the best quality, and able to germinate rapidly.


Minimum tillage to help crop establishment

Minimum tillage can be beneficial for crop establishment when used appropriately.

By following a minimum tillage approach, stubbles and root channels from previous crops remain within the soil profile.

When the new seed is drilled, it can find the existing root channel and use this to develop. This helps the seed to conserve energy and allows better water and air infiltration.

Machinery that fits well within a minimum or zero tillage system include:

  • LDS Low disturbance Subsoiler – alleviates subsurface compaction with minimal surface disturbance
  • Strake Straw Rake – high-speed straw rake used for creating a stale seed bed
  • DTS Strip Till Drill – gives the user the option to direct drill into stubble, minimum tillage or plough-based systems
  • DD Direct Drill – for zero-till crop establishment where seed placement is required with minimal soil disturbance


Cover crops to aid crop establishment

Getting the right cover crop can help to improve soil health, structure and biota which can provide many benefits for crop establishment.

When soils have good structure and are rich in minerals and nutrients, crops have greater access to vital elements which can help support plant growth throughout the cycle and initiate healthy development in early growth stages.

Cover crops such as vetch, rye and fodder radish are commonly drilled after harvest and then sprayed off six weeks, before the new crops are drilled. This process helps to protect soils from wind and moisture loss during the window between drilling and harvest. New seeds can also find the root channels from the cover crops and use these for their own development.

For more useful tips on how soil structures can help with click crop establishment, read our soil health blog.