Raised beds know how goes south

Five TOPCROP farmer groups in Tasmania have joined forces to do their own research into sustainable farming systems.

The farmers say they were fired up after some of them made an inspection tour of Southern Farming Systems' trial plots in Victoria. Of particular interest was the work on raised beds designed to overcome waterlogging.

They were so impressed they started organising and acquired some 20 sponsors to launch Southern Farming Systems-Tasmania (SFS-Tasmania).

Group chairman, northern midlands farmer Ian MacKinnon, says there is "huge enthusiasm" for the new group that numbers more than 50 farmers.

"We'll look at whole-farm systems rather than simply cropping," he says. "Research will look at how we can rejig agricultural activities to suit whole enterprises including livestock."

Former Tasmanian coordinator of TOPCROP Geoff Dean said of the group's research agenda: "from zero area on raised beds in Tasmania, we're talking about going straight to trials on 1,000 acres this cropping year. We aim to formalise work done in test strips for TOPCROP by establishing three research sites, conducting fully replicated trials."

Poppy rotation

Along with Pivot, one of the principal underwriters of research is poppy-growing company Tasmanian Alkaloids. Company field officer Peter Keam says that not only is the company interested in sound crop rotations to enhance soil structure and fertility, but "raised-bed farming now offers an opportunity to grow poppies on soil types that were previously unsuitable".

Crops in research

Up to 30 varieties and lines of wheat, 20 varieties of barley, eight varieties and lines of triticale, up to 30 varieties of pulses as well as evaluation of canola and lucerne will go under the farmers' research spotlight.

At the main 6-hectare research site at Campbelltown, SFS-Tasmania will undertake 15-year rotation trials on six 1-hectare blocks. Trials will be on and off raised beds.

A second 2-hectare research site at Symmons Plains is trialing grain and legume growth on and off raised beds as well as growing poppies on raised beds. Nutrition and liming trials evaluating different basal fertilisers are on the agenda. The third and final 1-hectare research site at Cressy is testing different levels and types of fertilisers on the productivity of potato crops

Livestock and pastures

For livestock, SFS-Tasmania is testing a whole range of pasture material, including species new to Australia such as leguminous browsing shrubs (Dorycnium spp.) from the Mediterranean region. These are extremely drought-tolerant and produce a lot of dry matter over summer, similar in nutrient level to lucerne, according to Geoff Dean.

Both Geoff Dean and Ian MacKinnon are quick to say that none of this would have been possible without the farmers' formative experiences with TOPCROP. Mr MacKinnon reckons that TOPCROP has added half a tonne per hectare to the productivity of farmer members over the last three years. TOPCROP, he says, has acted as the springboard that has made the formation of Southern Farming Systems-Tasmania possible.