Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.07.2013

A view from the air leads to gains on the ground

Author: Sarah Clarry

Photo of a crouched man

Danny Flanery’s focus on soil health has resulted in canola yields increasing from just 50t when he was starting out to around 500t from the same area (2500ha) now. His wheat yields have responded similarly: from 90t in the beginning from 350ha to 1500t now, with protein levels between 14.9 and 15.7 per cent.

 PHOTOS: Sarah Clarry

An aerial view of his property in 2002 provided a wake-up call for New South Wales grower Danny Flanery, and transformed his approach to farming. The result has been productivity gains in every aspect of his operation

Around the Galong–Harden area of New South Wales’ south-west slopes, the story of Danny Flanery’s ‘lightbulb moment’ just over a decade ago is becoming part of local folklore.

At the Boorowa Show in early 2002, Danny saw helicopter rides for $50. He decided to go up and once in the air asked the pilot to fly over his property ‘Boorowa Flats’. What he saw appalled him: large outbreaks of salt and scalded earth with little vegetative cover.

Back on the ground and thinking about the way he and his father John farmed the property, he decided to change tack completely.

“I was sick of watching the farm blow over the fence,” he says. “I was burning stubble, and was overstocked, and I thought if I keep doing this, I won’t have a farm left.”

The area was one year into the drought and Danny was hand-feeding sheep seven days a week.

“I was throwing good grain at sheep and getting no result. I had hungry sheep and pastures that were being destroyed,” he says.

He halved his flock and also sold off most of their machinery. “We had a 40-foot airseeder, semis … you name it, we had it. We spent too much on machinery maintenance and we were below break-even.”

The cropping side of the operation was not going well either. In his first year of being responsible for farming the property, Danny harvested only 90 tonnes of wheat from 350 hectares and 50t of canola from 250ha.

He had seen other farms around the area that were much more productive. Among them was the iconic 6000ha ‘Bobbara Station’, under the management of Neil McColl with support from the Harden Murrumburrah Landcare Group. As Danny describes it, they had trees everywhere: “Well mapped out, well managed, well fenced and well looked after; the place looked healthy,” he says.

Photo of biosoil

Deliveries of biosoil awaiting spreading at ‘Boorowa Flats’ (below). Biosoil is partially treated sewage sludge that can be used as a soil ameliorant for agricultural soils and mine rehabilitation sites. It is high is nitrogen, phosphorus, trace elements and organic matter.

Danny could not afford the fencing or trees on the scale required to make an effective start on the remediation of his own property, but local Landcare coordinator Louise Hufton of the Murrumbidgee Catchment Management Authority (CMA) was able to set some wheels in motion to secure government assistance. The region had been identified as a high priority for action to address rising saline watertables that were threatening the agricultural productivity and health of the wider environment.

Louise is an energetic advocate for linking growers with organisations to promote sustainable land use. Her association with Danny in the following years has resulted in more than 80,000 trees being planted on the property, 30 kilometres of fencing erected and large-scale changes to his land management practices.

Louise encouraged Danny to attend a soil symposium in Brisbane in 2008 and he took the opportunity to speak to visiting scientists. What he learned changed his whole thinking on soil management.

The symposium led him to introduce biosoils or biosolids (treated sewage sludge) into his farming system as a soil ameliorant. The material provides both fertiliser and organic matter when added to agricultural soils. Before beginning biosoil applications, baseline soil tests on the property showed organic carbon levels of 1 to 1.5 per cent. Five years on, soil test results have shown levels up to 2.7 per cent on some areas of the property.

 Years after biosoil application
Monoammonium phosphate (MAP)
(kg/ha)
 Urea
(kg/ha)
Table 1: Fertiliser application on biosoil paddocks in years 1 to 6.
 1  30  –
 2  30  –
 3  30  50
 4  50  80
 5  50 to 76
 100
 6*  30  –
 *Biosoil is reapplied in the sixth year

The chemical composition of biosoil is not strictly consistent, but it is high in nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P), which has allowed Danny to cut back on fertilisers. Biosoil can only be applied once in any five-year period, and Danny uses rates of between 50 and 80t/ha on paddocks as they come out of a pasture phase and into a five-year crop rotation – usually canola/wheat/canola/wheat/canola/wheat. Table 1 shows the fertiliser applications in the years following biosoil applications.

The NSW Environment Protection Authority has strict regulations governing the use of biosoil. Once it has been delivered and spread on-farm it must be incorporated into the soil within 36 hours. Danny uses as offset disc for this.

Other changes Danny has introduced to improve soil health include slashing stubble rather than burning it, and slashing weeds instead of just spraying them out. The organic matter provides protection for the soil and conserves moisture, while also building soil carbon.

Increased soil biota following the application of biosoil also appears to be accelerating the breakdown of crop stubbles. “There’s a view that you can’t sow into a 7t stubble, but I've done it,” Danny says. “I slash the stubble straight after harvest then let the biosoil do its job.”

From his initial yields of 90t of wheat and 50t of canola, Danny now averages 1500t of wheat and 500t of canola from the same area. His wheat protein levels range from 14.9 to 15.7 per cent.

SNAPSHOT

Property: ‘Boorowa Flats’
Owners: John and Kerry, Danny and Jenny Flanery and employee Mark McCallum
Location: Galong, New South Wales
Farm size: 2000 hectares
Long-term average rainfall: 646 millimetres (winter dominant)
Soil type: red clay loam to brown clay loam with some lighter soils
Enterprises: cropping and grazing (9500 Merino and Merino-cross sheep)
Equipment: John Shearer 27-run combine, 18m Hardy spray rig plus

He has destocked substantially and his lambing rates are up from 85 per cent in 2001 to 115 per cent today. Previously he sheared once a year, but with healthier animals he now shears three times every two years, meaning an extra wool cheque. He has drenched his sheep only once in the past six years, and they have tested negative for worms all that time.

In 2012, Danny’s remediation efforts were recognised when he was named the National Landcare Primary Producer of the Year.

The tree planting and fencing has targeted vulnerable, uncropped areas such as creek lines, saline outbreaks, rocky hills, swampy areas and other low-productivity country. Danny has planted trees across a total of 300ha, and he sees this as a way to reinvigorate the property’s biodiversity, while providing shelter for stock, pasture and crops, and absorbing excess moisture in the gullies.

For Louise, such work ensures that biodiversity and habitat are increased, ground cover is enhanced, salts in the landscape are lowered and the groundwater flowing to the Murrumbidgee River is cleaner.

Photo of GRDC's Recycled organics fertiliser fact sheet

A fact sheet on Recycled Organic Fertiliser is available at:
www.grdc.com.au/
GRDC-FS-RecycledOrganicFertiliser

“Danny demonstrates that it doesn’t take a lifetime to achieve landscape change, and there are lots of benefits from looking over the fence,” Louise says.

More information:

Danny Flanery,
dannyflanery@yahoo.com

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