Nutrition management reflects measured thinking

Image of three men at a table

(From left) Phil, Brad and Peter Jackson run a canola/barley/linseed/wheat rotation on their farm near Gurley in northern New South Wales. They say linseed has reduced the plant parasitic nematodes in their soils and overall business risk.

PHOTO: Nicole Baxter


Growers: Peter, Janice, Brad and Phil Jackson
Location: Gurley, New South Wales
Farm size: 1150 hectares
Annual rainfall: 600 millimetres (long-term mean); 270mm (2014)
Soil type: black self-mulching clay over sandstone or clay
Topography: undulating
Soil pH (calcium chloride): 6.8
Enterprises: winter cropping, contracting
Typical crop sequence: canola/barley/linseed/wheat 

Peter and Janice Jackson’s measured approach to business has allowed them to build a sustainable farm and provide a future for the next generation

With risk management and economies of scale two particular challenges facing Peter Jackson’s farm business, the passionate grain grower says he has to be alert to all incremental adjustments he can make to boost returns on the land he farms with his family in northern New South Wales.

Peter and his wife Janice and sons Brad and Phil own 1150 hectares spread across two 575ha blocks, 30 kilometres south-east of Moree.

Theirs is a small landholding compared with many, and has required Peter and his family to develop a measured yet forward-thinking approach to business.

It all started in the 1980s when Peter and his parents moved from the Victorian Mallee to their property east of Gurley, where they farmed for six years following the district practice of not applying any fertiliser.

While most other growers were content to rely on the natural fertility of the black self-mulching clay soils to supply the nutrients needed for crop growth, the Jacksons tested their soils and found nutrient levels were not as high as first thought. This prompted them to quickly decide that added nutrients were essential to remaining in business for the long term.

Peter recalls: “I said to my father, ‘I don’t want to find out in 20 years that we can’t make a go of this. I want to find out in two’.”

In 1986, they added 25 kilograms/ha of starter fertiliser during sowing and doubled the rate the following year. The gain was almost immediate: “Two-and-a-half dollars were returned for every dollar spent on fertiliser,” Peter says.

These positive results prompted their first pre-sowing nitrogen application in 1988, starting with 50kg/ha of urea, and later moving to 100kg/ha.

They immediately saw a response and continued to increase their inputs until 1998 when they applied 150kg/ha of nitrogen and 150kg/ha of starter fertiliser.

However, Peter wondered if they had gone too far when wheat and barley crops produced too much biomass, suffered disease and insect attack, and failed to yield as expected. By contrast the canola yielded well, highlighting its potential with adequate nutrients.

From then on, the Jacksons adopted a ‘replacement’ nutrient management strategy, adding the nutrients removed by the previous crop plus a 10 to 20 per cent buffer. That has continued, with soil testing used to refine inputs when needed.

Peter says their use of fertiliser led to higher yielding crops with more vigorous root systems better able to reach and take up moisture and nutrients from the soil.

Over the years, this has revitalised the land in several ways:

  • the removal of moisture reduced the encroachment of salinity on patches of land where the watertable had started to rise;
  • vigorous plant root systems enhanced soil structure by breaking open the soil to improve rainfall infiltration;
  • more organic matter was returned to the soil by growing high-biomass crops, which also provided carbon for microbes involved in nutrient cycling;
  • retained stubbles kept the soil surface moist for longer after rain; and
  • adequate nutrition allowed crops to better tolerate yield-robbing root lesion nematodes (RLN).

Most importantly, fertiliser enabled the Jacksons to stay in business, which Peter says otherwise may not have been possible.

Crop selection

When it comes to deciding which crops to grow, the Jacksons prefer to stick to winter crops, only planting summer crops if a winter sowing opportunity is missed.

Previously, the Jacksons grew wheat/barley/canola, but recently added linseed after PreDicta® B tests confirmed the presence of 17,000 RLN (Pratylenchus thornei) per kilogram. These tiny worm-like organisms feed on roots, leading to yield losses of up to 70 per cent in wheat.

Linseed is tolerant to RLN, so the Jacksons see it as an important risk-management measure. Linseed helps prevent the build-up of nematodes and adds much-needed cash flow to their business. Over the past three years, prices received for linseed have averaged $800 per tonne.

The Jacksons were early adopters of no-tillage farming, introducing it in 1990. Stubble retention remains important today. Where possible, residue is left on the surface of their undulating country after harvest to prevent erosion and to improve moisture infiltration before summer storms arrive.

Although canola does not leave much residue on the soil surface, it is essential for disease and weed management. Peter says it also mops up nutrients that may have escaped beyond the root zone of cereal crops.

Until recently, barley was planted after linseed; however, linseed is now followed by wheat because the linseed dries out the soil, making it difficult for barley to achieve malt. If moisture is limited, the wheat is forced into the high protein grade, increasing the prospect for higher returns.

Production cycle

After crops are harvested, the Jacksons turn their attention immediately to the next season’s crops.

Their first task is to drill anhydrous ammonia (Big N®) into the soil, after 20 to 30 millimetres of rain, using a 12-metre three-point linkage rig set up with Bourgault discs on 1m spacings. Peter says the wide spacings minimise the amount of stubble knocked over and machinery blockages.

While many growers are not keen to apply nitrogen early due to limited cash flow, the Jacksons see this approach as another way of reducing risk, even if finance has to be secured, because they say added nutrients are essential for producing high-yielding and profitable crops.

Applying anhydrous ammonia earlier with wider row spacings also reduces the capital outlay of nutrient per hectare, and gives the nitrogen more time to spread through the soil profile as subsequent rain moves it away from the surface.

Also, early nitrogen application decreases the potential for volatilisation losses, lowers the risk of too much early biomass production and gives plant roots access to plenty of nitrogen at depth if conditions turn dry.

Leaching is not an issue. Brad says a sandstone layer 1.5m under their black self-mulching clay soils limits moisture and nutrient movement beyond the root zone.

After nitrogen has been added, the Jacksons try to keep off their country to minimise compaction, aside from spraying summer weeds when needed.

While phosphorus has not yet been applied at depth, soil tests have confirmed soil reserves are diminishing. In 2014, the Jacksons implemented a trial immediately after harvest where 150kg/ha of monoammonium phosphate (MAP) was applied on one block. The profitability of the crop response after harvest will be evaluated against their normal practice of applying 75 to 80kg/ha.

Aside from continuous adjustments to their nutrient management strategy over the years, the Jacksons have improved efficiency and reduced overlap by implementing tramlines using two-centimetre GPS guidance in each fallow to reduce compaction.

Permanent wheel tracks are avoided to minimise water erosion on their undulating country and to avoid having to renovate ‘depressed’ wheel tracks.

Planting starts as soon as the soil has 60cm of moisture. The high country is sown first to capture the yield gain possible with early sowing and to reduce the risk of frost damage.

Skills for hire

Another way Brad and Phil are helping to mitigate risk in their family’s business is by share farming a property north of Goondiwindi, Queensland, and contracting their services to other growers in their area.

Recently, investments have been made in a new high-capacity harvester and an aerated silo complex to reduce the risk of weather-damaged grain. A self-propelled boomspray has also been bought to better manage summer weeds.

Having skills they can use off the farm is another way the Jacksons aim to reduce risk. Phil is a qualified electrician and Brad a certified automotive engine rebuilder, so their expertise is often sought for electrical work, machinery repairs and welding.

While the Jacksons would like to buy more land, until an opportunity arises they remain focused on making incremental advances in productivity on their own farm by growing high-value products such as linseed and seed barley.

Brad sees the high price of land as the biggest challenge to his desire to expand the family’s landholding.

Nonetheless, he and his entire family are determined to carve out a positive future in the grains industry by working hard to maximise production on the land they have with excellent crop nutrition, using efficient machinery, growing a sustainable crop rotation, and picking up contracting and share farming opportunities as they arise.

“As small landholders, we don’t have quantity, but we can produce quality,” Peter says. “We love what we do so to make it work we must ensure everything is done in a timely and efficient manner.”

More information:

Peter Jackson,
0428 546 535,


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