The 25-year veteran's advice: it's not just a fad
Jim Halford has been farming in Canada’s Saskatchewan province using no-till methods for 25 years – long enough to see the positive impact of this approach both on his own farm and on Australian properties as no-till has spread here over the past decade.
“After 20 years when measurements were made we found that we had brought the organic matter up by 20 to 25 percent from where it was when we started zero tillage,” he says. “Organic matter produces more nitrogen for our crops, so we are using less fertiliser than we were a few years ago and less than our neighbours are using for conventional tillage.
“And I have seen the same advantages in NSW and Western Australia where they are finding that their soils are also improving considerably.”
Mr Halford credits no-till with keeping some farmers on the land. “The interesting part has been the change in people,” he says.
“We have even had farmers say they had been ready to quit farming, they were so disgusted with the conventional system that didn’t work. And so it was like a new lease on life to be able to change.”
Commenting at the first Victorian No-Till Farmers Association conference, he predicted that such gatherings would swell even further over the next few years as interest grows:
“All of a sudden they will realise it is not just a fad.”
Lower fertiliser costs are not the only benefits, he says. “You get better control of water in the soil, with less evaporation and more water to grow crops. Crop production, weed control and the soils have got better and the costs have gone down and the net returns have gone up.”
When he started using the no-till system, Mr Halford had to design his own seeding equipment. His innovations have been the basis of his family company, Conserva Pak Seeding Systems, which he now markets in Canada, the US and Australia, where he has sold more than 100 units.
Mr Halford’s farm, 16km southeast of Indian Head, is sited on sloping fields and suffered water erosion.
“We had to look to a different way of farming and in 1979 we started no tillage, using a purchased disc-type machine.”
The machine’s limitations led him to develop Conserva Pak. “The key to our machine is that you can put all the fertiliser down at seeding, at three to four inches in depth and you keep the seed above but off to one side. The seed is still on firm soil and the seeding depth is controlled by a packer wheel which is running right in the furrow.
“You are able to set the seeding depth relative to that packer wheel and the packer wheel firms the soil over both the seed and the fertiliser, all in one pass using one unit.
“It allows you to give the crop a real advantage because you are giving it all the fertiliser that the crop needs and so it becomes very competitive.”
On his own property, compared to when he started, the net economic benefit of one-pass minimum disturbance seeding was $CA35/acre ($A91/hectare).
He says independent researchers recorded that his level areas have stored an average of 1.25 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre per year over about the past 20 years. For the period 1991-1997, the carbon dioxide storage figure was 1.9 tonnes.
He expects these environmental gains to continue and to eventually exceed the levels of organic matter found in native grass soils.
For more information:
Conserva Pak, www.conservapak.com/
Region North, South, West