Practice change sets up the future

Image of Damen Maddock

Damen Maddock, grain grower from Mukinbudin, WA, during harvest.

PHOTO: Evan Collis

Implementing and fine-tuning controlled-traffic farming are central to this cropping family’s quest to help ensure diminishing rainfall still produces a profitable crop

Like most grain growers, Damen Maddock has his eye keenly on the future: working out systems and practices today that will help provide long-term resilience and viability for the family business.

Damen, his wife Ellen and their young son Charlie farm with his parents, Reg and Di, at Bonnie Rock, near Mukinbudin in Western Australia’s north-eastern wheatbelt. They have been challenged by a run of drier-than-average growing seasons, which means Damen is looking for ways to hold and use every drop of rain that he can.

The family has cropped the sandy loam and heavy clays of the region since Reg bought the 2000-hectare home farm, ‘Wylandra’, in 1974. Today, they own 8500ha and lease 1000ha.

The enterprise includes 2400 Merino/Dohne ewes, which provide a secondary income and complement the cropping enterprise. The Maddocks finish lambs on oats and barley and use the flock as a management tool to clean up weedy paddocks over summer.

This year’s cropping program includes 6500ha of Yitpi and Mace wheat, 600ha of Scope barley and 450ha of lupins.

While Damen is reluctant to talk averages in the face of variable seasons, he says 1.3 tonnes/ha is the 10-year average yield for both wheat and barley.

The biggest obstacle to lifting this is a drop in growing-season precipitation. History has Damen expecting 150 millimetres during the growing season, but this has been achieved only once in the past three years. The 2012 and 2013 seasons delivered just 99mm and 124mm.

This year, falls totalling 80mm from the start of March bode well, but the family is conscious of the need to conserve as much of this as possible ahead of a potentially dry finish.

For Damen, and most other growers in the state’s north-eastern wheatbelt, chasing moisture is the priority.

“Frost has not been an issue for us in recent years, and even any correctional management such as liming still takes second place to getting a crop up out of the ground,” he says.

He says a strategy such as applying all nitrogen fertiliser up-front fits the low-rainfall system because it allows plants to chase summer moisture and establish roots quickly. Damen applies 15 to 20 kilograms/ha of nitrogen.

Controlled-traffic farming

Three years ago, the Maddocks began pre-furrowing over summer to harvest summer rainfall to make it available at sowing. This involves running just the airseeder bar over wet pasture paddocks to help rain penetrate below the surface and escape evaporation. The crop is sown into the same furrow.

This innovation laid the foundations for the decision to move towards controlled-traffic farming (CTF).

“We need our crops to access stored moisture at depth, but roots can’t get through the hard pan,” he says. “So pre-furrowing creates water ‘harvesting’ zones that plants can access during establishment.”

To build further on this the family is progressively introducing CTF to reduce compaction, lift overall efficiencies and give new varieties a better chance to perform.

“We’re paying $4 to $5/t in plant breeders’ rights compared with about $1/t for the older varieties, so they really have to yield.”

The move towards CTF did not require any in-paddock changes, as the Maddocks have worked their paddocks up and back for about six years (using a GreenStar RTK GPS).

However, they did have to reassess their machinery. The Maddocks use a 36.6-metre Beverley Hydraboom boomspray, an 18.3m Deep Blade System (DBS) airseeder and were also running a 16.4m Bourgault airseeder. As part of their machinery purchase schedule they replaced the 16.4m airseeder with a 12.2m Bourgault 3320 in 2015 to better fit the system. The new airseeder has paired row stiletto boots on a 38-centimetre spacing.

These operating widths reduced traffic to two passes of the DBS airseeder and three of the Bourgault for every single pass of the boomspray.

The Maddocks plan to bring all equipment onto the same tramlines as they make future machinery replacements. The 10-year timeframe to achieving full CTF reflects the need to invest at a pace determined by seasons, but Damen says a couple of good years will fast track these plans.

Damen did his research before introducing CTF. In 2014, he joined 12 other WA growers for a GRDC-funded tour of Victorian farms to see CTF in action and was fascinated to see the difference at grain-fill between CTF and non-CTF systems.

He was particularly impressed by the system developed by Wimmera grower Rob Ruwoldt, one of the pioneers of Victorian CTF systems, and WA grower Brady Green, who has adapted Rob’s system at Nabawa.

“Both are very generous with their time and information,” Damen says. “We are fortunate to be able to draw on the knowledge of people who have gone before us. They are not only willing to share what works, but also what doesn’t so we don’t make the same mistakes. Introducing CTF into our business has really brought home the value of grower networks as critical sources of information.”

As he moves towards full CTF, Damen is also looking at other strategies to remove constraints to crops accessing as much moisture as possible.

“We trialled deep-ripping to break up soil compaction and incorporating lime over different soil types this year. We’ll be monitoring results to see if it supports purchasing a deep-ripping implement. We need to see a benefit in getting the crop up, or a strong yield response, before we invest. Deep-ripping costs $100/ha so I’m interested in how long the benefits last.”

Looking ahead, Damen believes growers like himself must adapt to the drying, warming climate that has made it so challenging to farm in WA’s north-eastern wheatbelt.

The way practice changes have already helped growers adjust gives him confidence for the future: “I think the opportunities for farming in the WA wheatbelt are still huge,” he says. “We’ve had a run of very trying years, but we’re still here. New farming technologies will help us to be more water use efficient and reduce input costs.

“A few good years will put growers here in a position to take advantage of new farming systems and technologies; then we might start to see employment increase and more people coming back to the community.”

With seeding finished, Damen and Ellen are hoping to spend some time on their fledgling aquaponics business. They trialled growing barramundi in 2014, feeding rainwater into an underground tank through a catchment system built more than a century ago to fill fish tanks in an unused farm shed. While it was successful, the cost of warming water for the barramundi prompted them to consider other options. They are now looking at producing cold-water trout.

More information:

Damen Maddock,
0428 487 047,
damo_el@bigpond.com

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