Technology embraced to lift efficiency returns
GroundCover™ Issue: 105 | Author: Nicole Baxter
Controlled-traffic farming has put Scaddan growers Mark and Hayley Wandel on track
Western Australian grower Mark Wandel has taken bold steps to embrace the most cost-effective technology and best management practices available, in a bid to maximise production and returns on the 6970 hectares of land under his care.
He and wife Hayley farm at Scaddan, 60 kilometres north of Esperance on WA’s south coast. Of the many ongoing changes they have made to their farming practices over the years, Mark says the most profitable has been the introduction of controlled-traffic farming, restricting all machinery on paddocks to the same travel lines or ‘tramlines’.
Mark first started thinking about tramlines after observing the effects of machinery compaction on his clay soils. Crops sown into trafficked soils germinated poorly, while those sown into non-trafficked soil germinated well.
In 2003 he made the decision to start working towards a controlled-traffic system because he could see the long-term benefits. That year, he travelled to Queensland with support from the GRDC and the Department of Agriculture and Food, WA, to see how other growers had made the switch.
Mark says the first step was to plan a system, starting with the headers and then considering other machinery needs.
To implement the system, he and his family purchased:
- a real-time kinematic (RTK) base station;
- upgraded RTK receivers;
- an 18-metre Ausplow Deep Blade System airseeder and bin on three-metre centres; and
- cotton reels for a John Deere 8520 tractor so the rear axles could be wound out.
A 9m three-point linkage tool bar was built for sowing faba beans on 900-millimetre row spacings. The bar was also used to carry shrouds for spraying in the inter-rows. In addition, a 3m axle was put onto the urea spreader. Season 2004 was the first year Mark sowed crops on tramlines and it took until 2008 to match all the machinery.
The results have been plain to see: “We are increasing our yields and it’s not like we’ve had fantastic seasons with wet springs. But tramline farming, coupled with better summer weed control, has increased our soil water-holding capacity,” he says.
In fact, he considers improved water use efficiency to be the main benefit. Now, the headlands are the poorest performing areas, yielding consistently lower than the tramline areas.
The Wandels are continuous croppers running a five-year crop sequence that usually comprises faba beans, field peas or vetch in the first year, followed by wheat/canola/wheat/barley.
Mark says the Australian Hard wheat variety Mace, with its high protein, high yields and disease resistance, is their most profitable crop. The sprouting tolerance of Mace is also crucial in the region, which is subject to regular late-spring and summer rain.
To help counter the sprouting risk, three high-capacity New Holland headers (two CR9080s and one CR9060) fitted with 9.14m fronts are deployed at the end of October to harvest the crop as quickly as possible. While there is a trend towards larger fronts to increase the speed of harvest, the 9.14m fronts fit within Mark’s controlled-traffic system.
An ongoing challenge is rutting caused by water pooling in the tramlines on some soils. These are renovated with a machine that moves soil from beside the tramlines into the hollowed-out tracks.
Ideally, renovation is done after rain because moisture softens the compacted tramline walls and improves the flow of soil into the hollows. If done in dry conditions, Mark says big lumps of clay are moved onto the tramlines, which can result in uneven wheel tracks.
Owners: Mark and Hayley Wandel
Location: Scaddan, Western Australia
Farm size: 6050 hectares (owned), 920ha (share-cropped)
Rainfall: 410 to 450 millimetres (mean annual), 260 to 270mm (mean growing season)
Soil type: grey clay, clay loam over clay and sand over clay
Soil pH: (CaCl2) 5 to 8
Enterprise: 100 per cent cropping
Typical crop rotation: legume (faba beans, field peas, vetch)/wheat/canola/wheat/barley/legume
Crops grown (2013): wheat, field peas, barley, canola and faba beans
Non-wetting soilsMaintaining and improving soil productivity across the property is an ongoing process. About four per cent of the cropping area consists of hydrophobic (non-wetting) soils, to which Mark and Hayley are adding 500 to 1000 tonnes of clay per hectare to improve water infiltration.
Electromagnetic (EM38) and radiometric technology is being used to locate subsurface clay bands on the property. Mark then quantifies the results with deep soil testing and a shovel, and uses a small delver to bring clay to the surface.
Where clay is deeper than 400mm, Mark digs pits and uses a carry grader to gather clay-rich soil and spread it on the surface. When spread with clay, the soils are deep-ripped to remove compaction caused by the carry grader and spaded to incorporate the clay.
Although Mark and Hayley have spent more than $1000/ha on claying, the result – a two-fold increase in production – has justified their investment.
In addition to soil and water management, the Wandels’ controlled-traffic system has also helped to improve weed management.
“Timeliness of spraying is critical and spray topping plays a major role,” Mark says. “As does catching weed seed at harvest and redirecting it onto our tramlines.”
A right-angled conveyor belt fitted to the rear of his three harvesters places weed seed accurately onto the western tramline, where germinating weeds are compacted by wheel traffic and compete with each other for light, moisture and nutrients, eventually rotting over time.
Knowing the exact location of weeds also enables Mark to control them when they are small, using a 9m shielded sprayer if necessary.
Another tool he uses is a WeedSeeker® – selective spot-spraying technology that has reduced chemical use, cut costs and allowed summer rain to be conserved for later use by crops.
When Ground Cover caught up with Mark in early May he had received more than 200mm of rain since January. The wet summer produced four germinations of weeds in some paddocks, which were successfully knocked down using two 36.57m sprayers running on the tramlines.
When it comes to nominating the biggest on-farm challenge, Mark puts people management at the top of the list. Although access to high-capacity machinery and facilities is important, Mark recognises the best equipment does nothing without skilled people who work efficiently as a team. The busy harvest requires Mark and Hayley’s efforts, plus those of three full-time and three casual staff. “If we want to expand we’ll need to employ more people,” he says.
In the past, the Wandels advertised in WA to find skilled farm workers, but in 2012 they had to look interstate to recruit two new full-time employees.
Mark aims to continue efforts to improve water use efficiency by using variable-rate technology to target potash and gypsum rates to soil needs.
He is also keen to keep improving harvesting and storage efficiencies by taking advantage of new equipment developments and encouraging staff to be as timely as possible in everything they do.
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Region West, North