Soil health results in increased profits
Reduced screenings, improved grain weight along with soil moisture retention and reduced input costs has ticked all the boxes for Riverina mixed farmer Charlie Webb.
Mr Webb, of Urana, has always been one for thinking outside the square and questioning the how and why of his surroundings.
His aim is to achieve a healthy, balanced soil to conserve every millimetre of rain to lift productivity and profitability.
Mr Webb has used organic soil activation product TM Agricultural, produced by Best Environmental Technologies, across his cropping country for the past four years.
He has noted reduced soil compaction, improved root development and increased soil biology.
Soil moisture retention and better soil structure are high on his priority list.
Year-round groundcover is used to prevent soil erosion and maximise water infiltration.
A decade ago Mr Webb was applying lime and gypsum to the red soils at higher than the recommended rate to lift soil pH to grow dryland lucerne, with a limited response.
“Everyone has told us for years the soil pH is the issue, but we really need to balance the soil microbes to achieve soil health,’’ he said.
Today, he is able to establish lucerne without inoculating the seed.
Through an increased understanding of plant health, Mr Webb has been able to achieve improved grain weight and reduced screenings in cereal crops.
Last harvest, he achieved a yield of 3.2 tonnes/ha in the F1 barley undersown with lucerne.
The barley was sown at 40kg/ha and the lucerne at 2kg/ha on a 30cm row spacing on knife points.
Mr Webb said yield variations in paddocks had reduced from 40 to 10 percent.
“Thirty years ago nobody really cropped this country because it was so hard to work,’’ he said.
“You needed big machinery and might have done 500 to 600 out of 7000 acres (2834ha).
“However, on a 240ha paddock of dryland lucerne we were able to run 1000 older ewes and lambs, with a 104 percent weaning last year.
“We spelled it for three-and-a-half months then weaned 2500 lambs onto it.’’
Mr Webb said the biological applications on black self-mulching soils had triggered better soil structure and plant germination.
Charlie and his wife Tana run 3000 Gum Hill and Centre Plus blood Merino ewes on the 3250ha holdings of ‘Lakeside’ and ‘Warrambah’ at Urana.
The sheep dovetail with 1200ha of wheat, barley and oats.
The classed up ewes are joined to Merino rams with wether lambs sold to processors at 21-26kg carcass weight, while the balance is joined to Hampshire Down rams to be turned off as suckers at four to five months of age. Set in an average rainfall zone of 450mm, the country ranges from sand hill to red loam, black selfmulching and flood plain soils.
The sheep graze pastures of lucerne, clover, annual ryegrass, wild oats and native grasses. Soils were naturally high in sodium and low in phosphorus.
“Subsurface salt has always been one of our limiting factors – even with a full soil moisture profile, crop growth will be uneven as plant roots hit the salt layer,’’ Mr Webb said.
“Since using the TM, the crop growth has been more even across the paddock.”
The crop rotation comprises two wheat crops followed by barley undersown with lucerne, not inoculated.
During the 1990s, Mr Webb was pushing the system with high inputs on the winter crops.
“I used to go to annual reseller field days, try the recommended fertilizer and chemical rates on the cereals and found we weren’t getting a return on it,’’ he said.
“We switched to direct drilling 26 years ago to reduce fuel and labour costs, and improve the soil health.’’
Mr Webb treated his entire cropping area with TM in 2010.
In one barley paddock, where only half was treated with TM, there was a lift in yield of one tonne per hectare. Satellite NDVI images revealed a clear increase in biomass on that half of the paddock through the growing season.
“Even two years later, we could see a difference in the following lucerne yield on the treated half,’’ Mr Webb said.
Soil tests in a 40ha paddock in 2011 revealed a low pH of 4.3 (calcium chloride), organic carbon of 1.24 percent, moderately low phosphorous of 34mg/kg, low zinc of 0.6mg/kg, and a phosphorus buffering index of 62.5.
After three years of TM application only, the 2014 soil tests revealed pH had increased to 4.5, organic carbon to 1.4 percent, phosphorus to 57mg/kg and an improved phosphorus buffering index of 55.
There was a reduction in exchangeable sodium from 4.8 to 1.3 over the three years. In other cropping paddocks, MAP application rates were reduced from 100kg/ha to 40kg/ha with a TM application.
“We do a summer spray to control woody weeds but no insecticides are sprayed on the lucerne, there is no fungicide on the wheat seed or fertiliser, and no need to spray fungicides for rust,’’ Mr Webb said.
“TM is not the panacea to everything and sprays must be timed correctly – you cannot let other management skills drop off.
“Mulching is important when growing garden vegetables so I apply the same philosophy to the paddocks to retain moisture and improve soil structure. “Fallowing doesn’t conserve moisture.’’ Mr Webb describes his own philosophy as ‘realistic farming’.
“I’m trying to work with nature and not against it,’’ he said.
“I like to read a lot – not necessarily about farming – but about how things work and why.
“I take a bit out of everything, line them up in my own way and there is always something else out there to find out about – never disregard anything until you have thought it through.’’
Mr Webb is happy with the health of his livestock, marking 109 percent lambs in the merino flock.
“The ewes are flushing up better on the improved lucerne stands,’’ he said. “The sheep are maintaining a higher body weight.’’ Mr Webb said the ability to tank mix with herbicides made TM applications simple.
He applies it at the recommended rate of 250mls/ha pre-seeding and in-crop.
Mr Webb estimates he is now saving $6000 in fertilizer freight costs alone.
“We have reduced input costs with no loss of yield – we are getting higher protein levels, and maintaining yields at or above district average,” he said.
“We rarely get F2 barley and are achieving APH 1 with our wheat on reduced fertiliser rates, equating to an extra $75/ha in profit.’’
Charlie Webb inspects the soil in a 240ha paddock of dryland lucerne.