Machinery Matters by Bernie Reppel

Hugh and Andrew Hall have gone international in their search for precision-skilled labour.

Precision farm management is a growing part of conservation farming techniques but it can require more skilled labour. So when the Ball family of 'Gorian', Burren Junction, felt in need of assistance, they looked to the intensive agriculture of Europe.

Hugh Ball listed the need for more skilled labour as one of the challenges to emerge from his family's experience with its "whole farming system on controlled wheel tracks".

The Balls obtain their skilled operators — usually from Ireland, Scotland or Canada — through a consultant and for short specific periods — planting, harvesting or spraying.

The increased cost is offset by the reduction in downtime and by the improved yields and profit delivered by the accuracy of precision farming.

A member of the Walgett Sustainable Agricultural Group, Mr Ball said his system had evolved rapidly since 1997 on the family's 5,000 hectares of self-mulching black clays. The farm still mainly produces cereals with rotations of pulse and summer crops.

From the first step toward controlled traffic (removing the centre tine of the planter as a guide for in-crop spraying), the Balls have moved on to precision-farming technology. In the 1997-98 summer fallow they contracted to have their country laid out and marked for permanent wheel tracks with the Bee Line Navigation GPS system, using auto-steer.

Spraying was carried out with two Spra-Coups — whose initial significant cost was offset by development of a contract spraying business — and 24-metre Hayes and Baguley booms on two front-wheel assist, 250 hp tractors, all serviced by a well-equipped water truck and batching plant.

Precision spraying saved seed, fertiliser and chemical losses in overlaps, and the overall operation was easier and able to be carried out at night, allowing chemical rate of application to be reduced.

Other machinery on 'Gorian' included a 12-metre Janke parallelogram planter on 40 cm spacings, a Mason vacuum planter on metre spacing and a shielded sprayer on double-skip configuration.

The benefits of controlled traffic

Mr Ball said the move to controlled traffic wheel-beds had greatly reduced paddock compaction, from 80 to 12 per cent. The result has been increased moisture infiltration, planting opportunities and crop frequency while improving soil structure.

Yields and profit were up 40-50 per cent in an above-average year and 30 per cent in a below-average one.

'Gorian' is in a semi-arid area but "with zero till and precision farming, we regularly achieve 2.5 t/ha and if we don't, we ask questions," said Mr Ball.

Reduced rolling resistance for tractors on their controlled tracks had also cut fuel requirements on 'Gorian'.

Current challenges:

  • how to adapt headers and chaser bins to the system of controlled wheel tracks
  • the effect on tractor warranties of modifications to wheel track and axle widths
  • the relative costs of marking country with GPS and traditional toolbar
  • stubble clearance in sowing equipment
  • tracks versus tyres on tractors, and
  • whether tractors eventually would require auto-steer facilities.

Contact: Mr Hugh Ball 02 6796 1308

Region North, South, West