Drought inspires a cropping paradigm shift
GroundCover™ Issue: 123 | Author: Brad Collis
Brady and Erin Green exemplify a new generation’s knowledge-building and knowledge-sharing approach to modern cropping, with climate resilience foremost in their scheme
When Brady and Erin Green moved to the family farm at Yuna in the northern wheatbelt of Western Australia in 2006, their enthusiasm was quickly curbed. The 2006 season was a drought, and although he had already worked on the farm for 10 years, Brady’s first year of management was the first time in the family’s history that a crop was not planted. And 2007 was not much better.
“It was a reality check,” says Erin,with understatement.
“We had wanted to live here on the property, not travel out from Geraldton as Brady’s parents had done, and enjoy the lifestyle and local community, as well as grow a business. But that year everywhere you looked it was just dry and brown, even the sky.
“The landscape was showing us just how fragile it was and we realised then that the conventional approach to cropping was not sustainable. We had to change.”
The first thing the couple decided they needed was expert help (and outside their local comfort zone). They were put in touch with Victorian no-till pioneer Rob Ruwoldt. It has become an enduring friendship and working relationship that has changed, completely, the way the Greens manage their land and their cropping. And from those first two drought years has come a fascinating case study in adaptation to a drying climate – the implementation of system changes that have allowed the couple to steadily, and with growing confidence, expand their operations to almost 9000 hectares despite a measurably drying, warming climate.
Brady says that up to the time he and Erin took over the daily management from his father, Ray, the property comprised 75 per cent cropping (wheat, lupins and barley) and the balance was devoted to Merinos.
After 2007, the stock and fences went, they bought a disc seeder and began the transition to controlled-traffic farming (CTF).
They had two immediate objectives: to farm in a manner that preserved soil moisture, and to rehabilitate soils that had become compacted and acidic.
“Everything came down to retaining ground cover and making the most of the limited water available,” Brady says. “So inter-row sowing and stubble retention were our starting points.”
Erin adds that they decided the goal was not to build a system for capitalising on the good years, “which look after themselves”, but to have in place a system that lessened the impact of poor years.
“We also refocused on our production costs to increase profits by getting these down.”
This meant soil testing to determine what the crop actually needed rather than what was simply applied as standard district practice.
After the drought, it was the soil tests on the mostly yellow sandplain that delivered the next rude shock.
“As soon as we started to dig below the surface we discovered compaction and really dire subsoil acidity, particularly at the 20 to 30-centimetre layer. It reinforced, again, the need for change. We had to make our soils a far less hostile environment for the plants,” Brady says.
The surface pH was 4 to 4.6 and worsened as they probed deeper.
Working with Rob Ruwoldt, the couple began, slowly, to transform their system – initially subject to the scepticism of friends and neighbours, given their advice was coming from the other side of the country where conditions are quite different, but, as Brady points out, not the principles.
“But we felt we needed to find someone who wasn’t local; someone who would take us out of our comfort zone, and that has proved really important.”
Their main divergence from district practice has been the introduction of full stubble retention, no windrow burning and integrated weed management. Summer weed control has become an absolute priority.
They also widened their row spacings from the district norm of 250 to 381mm.
“People were, and are, obviously curious, but for us the slightly wider spacing helps us to better get through the prolonged dry spells we now experience. The wider row spacing reduces competition between plant roots, allowing them to search further for moisture; keeping in mind the ground between the rows is standing stubble, not bare ground,” Brady says.
“There is potentially a slight yield penalty from wider rows, but we feel this is negated by all the other processes and efficiencies now in place. At the end of the day we are now sowing with confidence, knowing we have the techniques in place to make the most from whatever rain we get.”
As part of this matrix, Brady and Erin also moved to smaller, lighter machinery. Most growers in the area, for example, use 18 or 24-metre seeders. The Greens went down to 12m.
“It was to allow us to use smaller, more versatile tractors which use less fuel and can do all the jobs on the farm,” Brady says. “They are working 1000 hours a year doing everything from towing boom sprays, chaser bins, seeders and the lime and urea spreaders, and get turned over every 5000 hours.”
While all these changes were being introduced, Brady and Erin remained mindful of the need for a major assault on soil rehabilitation to address compaction and acidity. In 2011 a friend from their university days, Nigel Metz, a project officer with the South East Premium Wheat Growers Association (1100km away at Esperance), temporarily based himself on the property to oversee whole-farm pH testing down to half a metre.
They set up a soil-testing laboratory in the garage and, with the help of two Irish backpackers, ran hundreds of samples through the laboratory: “The results gave us a liming strategy to go forward with – spreading about 8000 tonnes of lime a year,” Brady says.
The result to date is a surface pH back up to a healthy 6 to 6.2 and a manageable 5.5 at the 20 to 30cm level.
The liming program has also been complemented by deep ripping down to 500mm.
“We have reached a stage now where the heavy lifting has been done and it’s more about fine-tuning – combating non-wetting soils, reducing tillage because we have gone back to tynes until we can find the right disc machine, and generally just trying to keep getting better at everything we do,” Brady says.
“Paddock hygiene is good: minimal weeds, and with reasonable rain our wheat yield now averages 2.2t/ha from a growing season rainfall of about 250mm.”
Erin says the changing weather has led to a shift in seeding times as part of a clear strategy for maximising whatever a season might deliver: “It begins with summer weed control, dry-sowing from 15 April, and staff inductions so that everyone knows the year’s goals. We can’t afford seeding mishaps that knock us off schedule so the annual induction is very important, especially for the part-timers and casuals,” she says.
“Nine thousand hectares is a big seeding program, but everyone works well as a team and knows what to do. One year we actually took our core staff to Rob Ruwoldt’s farm in Victoria so they could see what we were trying to achieve here. Everyone returned very enthusiastic.”
Driving the couple’s cropping strategy today is a farm advisory board comprising Rob Ruwoldt and two other advisers.
“Rob has been through everything we are trying to do and his advice and support continues to be invaluable,” Brady says. “It’s a big commitment to come to our meetings: a four-hour drive from his farm to Melbourne, fly to Perth, fly to Geraldton for a day and then all the way back again.”
Rob Ruwoldt is an acknowledged no-till pioneer who has helped growers across Australia and even in Canada. He says working with Brady and Erin has been extremely rewarding, seeing “the power of residue” change their business.
For him the same rules of engagement apply to growing a crop no matter where you are: “It’s fundamentally about soil health and weed control.”
For him this means zero-till, CTF and residue conservation. “They go together,” Rob says. “But it’s a big shift and something most growers have to work towards as cashflows allow.”
Rob is enthused by the yield responses that growers in WA’s northern wheatbelt, including the Greens, have been getting from deep ripping, saying the same production jumps are also being reported by growers in Canada.
“That deep layer of compaction comes from our mechanical agriculture, but if you can move to CTF after deep ripping, you shouldn’t need to deep rip again,” Rob says.
It has been a long, testing road for Brady and Erin since they took responsibility for the farm a decade ago, but they are quick to point out that every challenge they have taken on has been based on one very crucial factor – they love what they are doing.
“At the start of every season, when you smell that first rain on the way it is exciting,” Erin says.
“And you can see the farm improving; all the little things now making a big difference. Areas that used to let us down are now performing … it’s just rewarding, seeing a new story unfold every year,” Brady adds.
They also love where they live and the camaraderie of other growers in the district. Most, like them, are a new generation building on the starts their parents or grandparents made in what 50 years ago was an unforgiving cropping frontier. Today it is rewarding the effort and lessons learned.
“There is always something that will give you a kick in the guts, but then there are lots of little wins too and it’s these that keep you motivated … that drive that annual quest for perfection,” Brady says.
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