A group of Western Australian growers keen to implement controlled-traffic farming systems crossed the Nullarbor Plain recently to see how their Victorian counterparts have made the transition
For growers contemplating a new way of operating, seeing the practice in action often provides the motivation to make that leap. This was certainly the case for 13 Western Australian grain growers who took part in a GRDC-funded tour of Victorian farms where growers are using controlled-traffic farming (CTF).
The WA ‘Sandgropers’ CTF tour group.
(Back row, from left) Dane Farina (Warralakin), Damen Maddock (Bonnie Rock), Steve Rowe (Mullewa), Paul Blackwell (DAFWA Geraldton), Ross Doney (Salmon Gums) and Andrew Whitlock (PrecisionAgriculture.com.au, Ballarat); (front row, from left) Scott Thompson (Broomehill), Callum Wesley (Southern Cross), Glen Millington (Burracoppin), Nick Priest (Bonnie Rock), Wes Harding (Ongerup), Mick Caughey (Nungarin), Scott Watson (Westonia), Clint della Bosca (Southern Cross) and Pep Alvero (Merredin).
Tour leader Paul Blackwell, from the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA, says the aim was to give the visitors some confidence that their soils with a higher clay content would improve under CTF. It was a chance to meet Victorian CTF growers, hear personal accounts of their transitions to CTF, and appreciate the priorities and principles required to change farming practices.
The tour group also looked at the incorporation of manure and crop wastes into hostile subsoils, and the range of soil responses found in a decade of testing in Victoria.
Bonnie Rock grower Damen Maddock says he had been interested in CTF for a while: “Our winter rainfall is declining, so we need to look at better ways to preserve our summer moisture. CTF can help us access that moisture and deliver efficiencies.”
The tour began with a visit to Murnong Farming at Inverleigh, where manager Josh Walters and his staff crop 1200 hectares of mainly heavy soils in high rainfall.
Some of the measures he has implemented include no-till, the addition of legumes, zoning for soil management and development of a CTF system.
Over the past 10 years, this operation has moved from combines to a six-metre airseeder with 2m track and matching 18m boom, and a 12m header on a 3m track. Mr Walters’s message was to make sure there is a good equipment fit from the start.
Mr Walters is trialling various methods of applying livestock manures with help from the Victorian No-Till Farmers Association, as well moving to a John Deere disc seeder to match a new CTF set-up and improve seeding efficiency.
Next stop was ‘Yallock Estate’, a 5670ha property near Ballan managed by John Sheehan, whose team is developing a 6m-wide commercial-scale subsoil manure incorporator. This is a three-axle cart with a delivery system to six tynes, spaced 1m apart. The investment is based on years of trials by Dr Renick Peries, from the Victorian Department of Environment and Primary Industries, who explained the technology to the group.
The trials have shown that 10 to 20 tonnes/ha of manure added to these sodic clay subsoils raised yields by an average of 70 per cent and the effects persist for at least seven years.
Close examination of a CTF faba bean crop at Steve Lanyon’s property in Boort, Victoria.
PHOTO: Paul Blackwell
The group then travelled to lower-rainfall areas. Steve Lanyon runs a CTF system on his farm at Boort with intensive irrigation and some dryland cropping, while Neil Postlethwaite’s property at St Arnaud is all dryland CTF and no-till.
Mr Lanyon has invested in a US-developed precision planter, while Mr Postlethwaite and his brother Trevor are developing new openers and shield sprayers in their agricultural engineering business.
Mr Lanyon uses a downforce monitor on his John Deere planter, which varies to keep the seed depth constant.
The downforce monitor allows him to assess the gypsum responsiveness of his soils. If an area of these dispersive clay soils requires more downforce for planting, more gypsum is required.
At Horsham in Victoria’s Western District, Geoff Rethus and his son Luke seemed to have reached CTF nirvana in just seven years, with high-tech equipment for every purpose.
Their gear includes a Quadtrac row cropper, header with tracks, a multi-axle CTF chaser bin with side-table, a double fold row-following 12.2m shield spray unit and a working Daybreak planter.
Mr Rethus guided the group through the CTF development on his farm and how he was able to improve each area with experience and observation.
One of their most useful pieces of equipment is a homemade tramline renovator to fill and level rutted tramlines in heavy country.
The visitors also met Rob Ruwoldt, one of the pioneers of Victorian CTF systems. The group was captivated by Mr Ruwoldt’s discussion of biological farming, cover crops, inter-row sowing, growing sorghum to break hardpans, working with a moisture probe and his evolution to a very low seeding rate.
“Listening to Rob speak was a highlight of the tour for me,” Damen Maddock says.
The final stop on the tour was Andy and Jack Tucker’s farm at Willaura North, south of Ararat.
The farm is in high-rainfall hilly country and the Tuckers have employed flexible and innovative thinking to deal with roughness and rutting on heavy, but shallow soils.
They will sometimes burn the stubble to reduce loads for their Conserva Pak tyne bar.
When there is sinkage on their tramlines – despite a tracked tractor with wide tracks – they have a shallow offset disc kit with a set of rubber wheel packers to break down edges of ruts and fill in any holes.
This leaves the paddock in a uniform condition to avoid different weed germination patterns and stubble levels when renovating.
Mr Maddock says the tour reinforced his decision to adopt CTF: “My views of controlled traffic have changed so much. We have to start with a really good plan and it has to be precise,” he says.
“In 2013 we had 120 millimetres of growing-season rainfall and this year we’ve had 140mm, so we can’t afford to make errors. We’re looking at 10 years to get to where we want to go, and if we buy the wrong machine it may be another two or three years before we can make a change.”
For tour leader Mr Blackwell, the group’s commitment confirmed the tour’s success: “Now 13 ‘sandgropers’ seem to have more confidence that CTF (in some form) will suit them and they are making plans,” he says.
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