Getting the red country out of the red

QUEENSLAND'S Western Farming Systems project means many things to many people. District agronomist at St George, Nick Christodoulou puts his finger on it when he says, "the project is about developing partnerships, and, by sharing experiences and knowledge, learning how to manage our farming systems better".

"We're working with people with a range of skills, farming over a number of soil types. We're working together to find the answers that will tum this from marginal country to dependable country."

He's a little scornful of the idea that research driven by any single stakeholder is the best way of getting results. It seems that the scientists, advisers and farmers working together in the projects respect each other. No one has the copyright on a good idea and Mr Christodoulou sums it up by saying, "If someone, it doesn't matter who, in the group is passionate about an idea and starts to drive it and the others recognise it as a good idea, they'll get behind it."

He tells the story of one member of a group who "accidentally" long-fallowed part of his country one season. He was impressed with the results and asked for help in measuring the impact of the technique.

"He's a farmer who likes to hedge his crop price and he was sufficiently impressed by the extra certainty that long fallow gave him that he's now considering long fallow as his standard management practice. So far, no one else in the group has followed suit but we all look carefully at his results each year and we all make comments on what he's doing."

Diversity of skills is a major reason for success. Some have a bent towards such things as precision agriculture; others are more traditional mixed-farming enterprises. But Mr Christodoulou believes that participation in the project allows every member to capitalise on the strengths of other members and to bolster their skills across the whole range of farming enterprises. "Everyone wants to try something out and we've developed a sort of template for basic research projects so that we can compare like with like. It's a bit like a modified TOPCROP program. The focus is on the hip pocket and the sorts of things the members want to look at. Whatever we o, we compare rainfall, temperature, plant establishment, nitrogen application, yield and protein content."

Communication between members and groups comes by way of workshops where grassroots issues that any member of the group might feel strongly about are dealt with. There are newsletters, articles in local newspapers and on-farm research, the subject of bus tours, that sort of thing. If there's been an overall success story since 1995, Mr Christodoulou suggests that it might be the acceptance of the value of a ley pasture phase in the rotation.

That's led to a hunger for new summer legumes and he says that there's increasing interest in 'new' species like unica stylo. "We're seeing more and more commercial-sized strips of these pastures going in," he says. Fine-tuning lucerne establishment, chickpeas a winner There's also been an evolution of the most successful techniques for establishing lucerne. "It had always been a difficult crop to get established but shared information has led to the acceptance of the need to sow shallow and just lightly cover it, particularly in the ley phase," he says.

There's also the acceptance of new crops in the rotation. Mr Christodoulou talks about seeing increasing areas of crops like mung beans and canola. Chickpeas are emerging as a success story. "Quite a number of people recognised that their old farming country was getting tired and they were looking for something in the rotation. Chickpeas are attractive because of cost -effectiveness in being able to fix nitrogen, but we need varieties particularly suited to the area and as a disease break. "We are treating the crop as a major enterprise in its own right and, given the comparative price of wheat and chickpeas, you certainly don't see the header going into the wheat paddock first as a matter of course." SEEN here at 'Mulga View' before his recent retirement, Bruce Scriven of St George, Qld, like others involved in the Western Farming Systems project, ran his own research trials. Believing that plant size, not density, was the key to yield and protein on his mulga/poplar box, sandy red loam country, he worked to find the optimum rates of phosphorus fertiliser. Phosphorus, he says, helps to create a good root system and that means better moisture utilisation and improved uptake of nitrogen. Early results showed an increase in yield and protein content of wheat crops where 60 kg/ha of starterphos had been applied. Taking the trial work further, he applied starterphos at rates varying from zero to 20 kg/ha, 50 kg/ha, 55 kg/ha and 90 kg/ha in 20-metre wide strips in his wheat crop. Though the trial was not replicated, multiple controls boosted confidence in the results. Nitrogen trials on the property have also shown that more nitrogen is needed in this country to boost yield and protein. The speculation is that split applications may be needed and that there may be other deficiencies in the soil limiting the plant use of phosphorus and nitrogen. AT 'DUN KERRY' , Nindigully, Qld, the Hill family watched Western Farming Systems lucerne and other ley pasture trials 'over the fence ' on the next-door property and decided to try lucerne and medics as a means of replenishing the nitrogen levels in their cracking grey clay country which had been farmed for many years. Lucerne proved to be something of a 'curate's egg'. Stuart Hill found it difficult to establish at first and it suffered from waterlogging in the third year. While it was responsible for a big boost in lamb production, it didn't live up to expectations as a nitrogen fixer. After three years of lucerne pre-sowing nitrate nitrogen had risen from 15 kg/ha to 59 kg/ha. Waterlogging was blamed for nitrogen loss. Mr Hill says that he prefers lucerne over medics and feels that it's important to give lucerne a good start. He'll sow ontomoisture in fallow country at rates up to 3 kg/ha. THE MILLS family of 'Tamarang' are part of the Wallumbilla South TOPCROP group in Qld. They turned to chickpeas as a way of breaking the yellow spot disease cycle and the crop has now become an integral part of their rotation. Profitable in their own right, they 're also a costeffective way of adding nitrogen.

The Western Farming Systems trials at Nindigully demonstrated that on average there's a 20 kg N/ha benefit from a chickpea crop. That's the equivalent of 40 kg/ha of urea. Following wheat crops also showed a 30 per cent lift in yield. The Mills are also learning by experience. Originally they sowed their chickpeas on 30 cm rows but produced a dense crop subject to fungus disease. They've now moved to metre spacing with taller, disease-free plants as a result. Seen here, Andrew Mills of 'Tamarang', Wallumbilla, says zero- and minimum-tillage practices are paying their way.

Program 4 Contact: Mr Nick Christodoulou 0746208122

Region North