Soil health re­sults in in­creased prof­its

AgLife - - News - By Kim Woods, Outcross Me­dia

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.

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