Rotation saves soils, lifts yields, profits: Right Rotations: a fresh approach to extension

Dr Alan Dube (centre) runs a root disease identification workshop for commercial agronomists before beginning the state-wide Right Rotations campaign for farmers.

Test your 'soil bank'. Score seven out of ten and your soil is in credit. This is the message from Right Rotations, a unique extension program coordinated by the South Australian Advisory Board of Agriculture. The program encourages farmers to adopt low cost cropping options which are both profitable and sustainable.

Right Rotations is not just a matter of growing crops and pasture in a particular sequence. It is about farmers improving their management skills while adopting new technology. It is built around four basics: root disease control, time of sowing, weed and...stubble management and nutrition.

An integral part of Right Rotations is a Crop Rotation Sustainability Index, developed by the SA Department of Primary Industries to help farmers score their success in making their farms sustainable.

DPI officer Tim Herrman likens the soil to a bank, and uses the analogy to explain his index.

"'Each farmer has an account and according to his management his soil according to his credit or 'in the red'," he said.

"There may be times when you need to go into the red - perhaps by increasing crop intensities, burning stubble or cultivating for weed control. This is quite acceptable providing in the long term there are more credits than debits." Geoff Arney, who grows mixed grain crops near Bordertown Chairrman of Right Rotations Management Committee. He sees the Sustainability Index as a guide to farmers rather than a scientific measure but agrees is a great help.

Rotation of chemicals

Mr Arney said Right Rotations encourages farmers to look at their weed and stubble management and actual rotations. The program also looks at resistance to chemicals, rotation of chemicals could be just as important as rotation of crops.

I am very happy that GRDC has seen fit to fund Right Rotations. I believe it is already having a major impact on farmers." Mr Arney said.

More than 2000 farmers

Right Rotations has already involved more than 2200 farmers in the state's main cereal growing districts.

The program began in November 1990 as a pilot program, concentrating on the Mallee and on Eyre Peninsula. During the first year alone, almost 1000 farmers participated.

Last year more than 1200 farmers in the state's Northern Districts, Yorke Peninsula, Barossa Valley, Murray Plains and South East participated.

Farmers say they appreciate the Committee's, decision to involve them with 'hands-on' activities at a branch level. Whenever possible these activities are held in a paddock or farm shed location.

The Right Rotations committee organises technical speakers and instructors for the workshops. Their technical comments are reinforced by local farmer-referees

Visual aids and surveys

Almost 30 per cent of the program budget is being spent on producing quality easy to understand visual aids, laminated when necessary for use in the paddock.

The Right Rotation, Committee believes accurate surveying of their audience is all essential part of the program. Surveys explore existing farmer crop management practice, likely barriers to adoption of new information, and are benchmarks for future reference.

In the two surveys carried out to date farmers expressed concern over the costs of new technology. They also saw rainfall as the major factor limiting crop yields. As a result, the Right Rotations program is concentrating on management issues that will help farmers make better use of available rainfall.

The surveys also revealed that farmers find it very difficult to identify the main cereal root diseases. The Committeere responded by allocating almost 50 per cent of its initial budget to Root Disease Identification workshops.

In what is probably the biggest single on-farm: extension campaign organised in SA. the Coommittee held 38 root disease identification workshops in 1991, followed by a further 45 in 1992. With a ratio of one instructor to four or six farmers, those attending received individual ' hands on' attention resulting in rapid identification of the main cereal root diseases.

Following the workshops, 99 per cent of farmers who took part said they were in a better position to assess crops for root disease. Almost 85 per cent (82 per cent in 1991) indicated they would change the way they manage cereal root diseases.

Right Rotations represents good value. In 1992, the budget was $48.000. With more than 2,200 farmers participating the cost is less than $22 per farmer.