Grains Research and Development

Date: 01.07.2005

Rollercoaster of learning

[Photo by Brad Collis: Brad Wood: "It"s a challenge, you make mistakes, but keep moving ... and the reason is because at the end of the day I really enjoy growing a good crop."]

For a young chap who had only recently taken over the family farm, Brad Wood"s first stint at multiple cropping was a heart-breaker.

Instead of a 1:3 crop/pasture rotation, he decided to weight the farm more towards crops. And as had always been the procedure, he raked and burned the stubble, spread the fertiliser ... and then watched miserably as over the next couple of days everything blew away; topsoil, fertiliser, the lot.

"That was nine years ago, and it was the last straw," he recalls.

Brad, who crops 1500 of the 2000 hectares that he farms in the undulating, high-rainfall district of Kendenup in WA"s Lower Great Southern, decided there and then to investigate no-till. He knew there would be a lot to learn, and quickly, but he still didn"t expect the rollercoaster ride that he has been on since.

In the first few years the changes seemed mostly mechanical. He started using a triple-disc seeder because tines choked in the heavy stubble. He began to fine-tune the crop rotation and pasture phases - and then he "hit the wall".

"There"s a moment when the change catches up, when the whole nutrient balance in the soil is adjusting; finding a new equilibrium.

"That"s when you suddenly go backwards and it"s easy to become disheartened. It"s the moment when you have to remind yourself why you made the change. This is when you need to focus on the long-term goal."

Now, almost a decade down the track, Brad has no regrets. The paddocks don"t blow away, the soil has gone from a "pale gravel colour" to a rich, dark chocolate as the humus levels have built up. He is now confident he will eventually reach his goal of yielding seven to eight tonnes a hectare for cereals and 5t/ha for canola.

However, before that happens there"s still a long list of adjustments to make, such as building more capacity into the soil"s hydrological and biological systems through ongoing agronomic and equipment changes.

"One of the things you soon realise is that every season brings more to discover and more to learn," he says.

Brad"s farm is in a 550-millimetre rainfall zone and he crops canola, wheat, barley, lupins and peas. In the beginning he bought a 27-row Shearer Trash Culti-Drill and took to it with the oxy-acetylene, attaching Walker double-disc openers with Great Plains "wavy" discs on the front. "Because there was a lot of debate going on about row spacing, we decided to stay at 18 centimetres, but have since moved out to 23cm with good results."

As each season delivered a new set of problems and experience, Brad bought a Daybreak opener and with the Queensland manufacturer made some modifications to make it more suitable to WA"s troublesome conditions (rocks, stones and hard, abrasive soil). He found that the six-degree disc angle threw enough soil for trifluralin incorporation.

"Basically we needed a disc that mimicked knife points because we wanted under-seed tillage to improve root development, and also to keep fertiliser away from the seed," he says. "In this area we sit under a lot of cloud in the early part of the season, so if you can get a crop up before the really cold weather you"re away."

He says the key essentials for early growth are accurate seed placement and the application of banded fertiliser away from the seed: "We apply banded potash below the seed using the Daybreak single-disc seeder."

Brad says that when switching from pasture to crop he grazes out the paddock, spraytops and begins with canola, then a cereal, peas or lupins, cereal rotation. One of the hurdles is a limited choice of wheat variety, he says: "We need a shorter-stem variety. I"m quite fed up with wheat that stands chest-high. It doesn"t help what we"re trying to achieve. And barley varieties are not much different."

Hard experience has now given Brad confidence in his future as a graingrower and in his ability to continue making changes.

"To reach the yields that I now believe are possible there"s a lot of work still to be done on water-use efficiency. The more we can grow, the less water we"ll have running down the profile and into depressions where salinity can build up. But it costs money to play outside the (agronomic) window because the seasons are so variable, even in a supposedly high rainfall zone like this.

"Also the first changes were on the macro scale; easier to grasp. Now it"s the finer details that need attention, and this is not so easy to handle on your own. For the first time I am now getting and using outside advice because so much more thinking has to go into what we are doing - much more than one person can put in."

Brad says his next major step will be autosteer, but until he can afford it he is preparing the way by moving gradually to tramlines and continuing to improve his machinery"s stubble-handling capabilities through cutting, chopping and evenly-spreading stubble.

"Basically it never stops. It"s a challenge, you make mistakes, but keep moving ... and the reason is because at the end of the day I really enjoy growing a good crop. That"s the sense of achievement that makes it all worthwhile."

For more information: Brad Wood, daybreak@westnet.com.au

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