Allen's life quest to nurture living soils
For South Australian grower Allen Buckley, soil health has been a near life-long quest. Allen was one of the first Mallee growers to adopt no-till farming more than 20 years ago; back in an era when the region was notorious for losing millions of tonnes of topsoil to wind erosion.
Since then Allen has been on a journey to turn around his farming system and the sustainability and profitability of grain growing in the region.
Allen farms near Waikerie and was one of the early movers to establish Mallee Sustainable Farming. As founding vice-chair of the group, he worked closely with the late researcher Dr David Roget to map strategies for growers to tackle the region’s dust storms.
Over the years, the 5000-hectare mixed-farming enterprise Allen and his wife Jenny operate has become an example of how no-till farming can improve soil productivity, increase disease suppression and capture moisture in a low-rainfall environment to increase average yields.
Building the organic matter of his sandy loam soil to improve water-holding capacity is important in a system that receives just 160 millimetres of growing-season rainfall (250mm annual rainfall).
His system is 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 for a mini-ecosystem of 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. This thatch is an example of how we can 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.”
To keep up with demand, Allen is spreading his own compost blend. The main aims are to increase soil organic matter, improve soil structure and reduce fertiliser costs. He wants to consistently achieve protein of 11.5 per cent and higher.
Allen is also trialling cover crops to keep living roots in the soil over summer and would like to see more research into mixed crops and crop sequencing.
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.”