A life of living with soil

It has been 20 years since Allen Buckley became an early adopter of no-till farming in the Mallee. Today, the Waikerie, South Australia, grower says it is an ongoing journey to maintain healthy soils and ground cover and increase yield

Portrait of Allen Buckley

Mallee grower Allen Buckley has lifted the health of soils on his Waikerie, South Australia, farm.

PHOTO: Rebecca Jennings

South Australian grower Allen Buckley was integral to the formation of the Mallee Sustainable Farming grower group. As the founding vice-chair, he worked closely with the late researcher Dr David Roget to map out strategies for growers to tackle the dust storms that characterised the Mallee region.

“We had dirt banking up higher than a five-strand fence; I knew something had to change,” Allen recalls. “There had to be another way of farming to address wind erosion, which was the single biggest problem of farming in these sandy soils.”

Snapshot

Growers: Allen and Jenny Buckley
Location: Waikerie, South Australia
Area: 5000 hectares
Crops: wheat, cover crops
Livestock: 1000 Merino ewes, half joined to Merino rams and half to cross-bred rams
Soils: predominantly sandy
Average annual rainfall: 250 millimetres (160mm growing season) 

Allen reckons if someone tells him ‘you can’t do that’, he is certainly going to give it a try.

“People told us we couldn’t move to no-till farming on our sandy loam soils, but now our crops are the best they have ever been. We have seen crops benefit as we promote the good microorganisms in our soil, and we have increased average yields across the farm.”

He says the biggest lesson of changing the system has been to persevere.

“It didn’t just happen overnight, it’s been a one per cent gain here, a one per cent gain there, but over time it all adds up.”

Organic matter

Over the years, the 5000-hectare mixed-farming enterprise Allen and his wife Jenny operate has become a ‘test farm’ for researchers and other growers to observe how no-till farming can improve soil productivity, increase disease suppression and capture moisture in a low-rainfall environment.

Increasing the organic matter of his sandy loam soil to improve the water-holding capacity is important to Allen, especially in a system that receives just 160 millimetres of growing-season rainfall (and 250mm annual rainfall).

“It’s not rocket science – it’s just about conserving soil moisture to take the risk out of farming. We can’t control how much rain we get, or when we get it, but we can impact on what we do with the moisture when we get it.”

Allen has trialled several disc seeders over the years, but believes his current tyne and press-wheel system is best suited to the sandy-loam soils until they can improve their rotation to include more legumes and tap-rooted plants, either as cash or cover crops. By then, the disc system will be very good at seeding into the residue with less disturbance and offering more soil cover to prevent wind erosion.

It is a system designed to capture as much moisture as possible. The ribbon-banding system with 305mm row spacings creates a ‘thatch’ of residual organic matter between the seeding rows, which Allen describes as a mini-ecosystem to promote soil microbial activity.

“I try to look at farming from an environmental point of view; we have to work with nature, not against it, especially in a low-rainfall area, and this thatch is an example of how we can actually get nature to work for us,” Allen says.

“The system channels rain off each side into the adjacent seeding row so it infiltrates where the roots are. By keeping the zone between the rows dry, we also slow weed germination and growth.”

Since moving to no-till, Allen has noticed stubbles break down more quickly, which he attributes to increased soil microbial activity.

“Fifteen years ago, we could find four to five years of stubble, now I’m hard pressed to find three years of stubble out there. The stubble load is being processed a lot more quickly, which is a sign of active soil microbial populations.”

To keep up with demand, Allen has his sights set on bumping up soil organic matter by spreading his own compost blend, using chicken manure, oranges from a fruit juice plant and organic fertiliser. He plans to spread 4 tonnes/ha, with some trial strips as high as 20t/ha to see the upper potential of the recipe.

The main aim of the manure is to improve soil structure and reduce fertiliser costs. Allen also wants to consistently achieve protein of 11.5 per cent and above (protein ranged from 9 to 12 per cent in the 2015 harvest).

Cover crops

Allen is also experimenting with cover crops – another unusual sight in the Mallee – after seeing the results of CSIRO and South Australian Research and Development Institute trials on his farm and visiting growers in the US who sow a mixed cover crop rather than a monoculture. He was also inspired by Rick Beiber, who spoke about cover crops at a South Australian No-Till Farmers Association conference, and GRDC-funded Nuffield Scholar Craig Duffield who researched the role of cover crops in retaining soil residue.

He planted a 60ha trial of a ‘shotgun mix’ of field peas and canola last winter, initially to harvest, but it frosted so was cut for hay. He is also trialling summer crops and has planted a few hectares to sorghum, to improve soil biology rather than as a cash crop.

“Our priority for the cover crops is grazing and to build up our soil. The more living roots you have in the soil the more chance you have of your biology improving.”

While he is conscious of many growers’ concerns that a summer crop will rob soil moisture from winter crops, trial data has shown that the loss to the system is approximately 12mm. Allen believes the benefit of summer crops will far outweigh the moisture loss, but time will tell.

“It is very much a trial at this stage, to see how well cover crops will grow in summer.”

Allen would like to see more research into crop sequencing, to match the order of cereals and break crops, and also into the opportunities for multiple species of crops not just monocultures.

It is all part of his strategy to optimise the productivity of his existing land: “What I have done is try to improve my system so that I can get 100 per cent out of every hectare rather than having a lot more hectares.”

Balancing livestock and cropping

Allen has retained livestock in his no-till system, despite some scepticism.

“People told us we couldn’t have no-till farming and livestock in the same system as the timings are all wrong and the sheep impact on stubble; but livestock is important for diversification in the Mallee.”

So, the Buckleys adjusted their livestock management, moving lambing from

April/May to July, and shearing from August to April, to complement the cropping program. They run 1000 Merino ewes, with 50 per cent joined to Merino rams and the remainder to cross-bred rams.

Allen crops every hectare with the intention of harvesting 85 per cent, with the remainder reserved for grazing. In a good year, any crop that can be harvested after grazing is reserved to finish lambs in his on-farm feedlot.

Looking ahead, Allen has plans to build sheds alongside the feedlot so he can finish lambs in an ‘inside–outside’ environment.

Soil

Farmed Mallee soils have been turned from dust to soils that are rich in organic matter.

PHOTO: Paul Jones

More information:

Allen Buckley,
0429 609 209,
glenraeholdings@bigpond.com

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