Here’s my final Nuffield report. Just need to do the presentation in November and I’m free.
Decisions, decisions. To start with the practical or the philosophical? Let’s go for practical.
It’s obvious that like after my trip to North America, the climate is so different in Australia that it’s not possible, or at least sensible, to import techniques wholesale. But that doesn’t mean inspiration isn’t there for the taking.
I’ve been encouraged by how many people graze cash crops, specifically cereals and oilseed rape. There is plenty of conflicting evidence and experience about its potential harm, or lack of, to the following yields. But if anything I am more interested now than I was before – luckily as we have some wheat waiting to be grazed at home this year anyway. One thing that I hadn’t considered before was grazing rapeseed, which I think has more potential than the cereals. It could be a great way of planting early and relatively thickly, to mitigate flea beetle damage, and then grazing to get it back to a sensible size pre-winter. Originally, after meeting Hugh Dove, I thought it would help us with weed problems.
I now think that was a mistake. Literally everyone else I have spoken to, farmers, researchers, has said it is something to be avoided on weedy fields; especially grass weeds. Broad leaf weeds should be less of a problem, apparently the sheep will sometimes preferentially graze them, which has to be the ultimate selective herbicide. But I have seen first hand how much a thick crop and lots of competition helps to suppress weed growth, so the grazing must be approached with caution. We will graze some OSR this season now as a trial.
The second area I think has potential is biological fertilisers, specifically compost, worm juice, and microbe seed dressings. However, the devil is in the detail. I know there is a source of cheap compost nearby our farm, but I’ve learnt that not all compost is created equal. There are tests to see what is good, but I have no idea yet if they are available in the UK. The same goes for the juice, and the microbes: it’s plausible that they will work as advertised, but can we get hold of them to try out? And can we apply them properly with the equipment available?
The visits I get most out of are when I see someone who has developed a new system, preferably one that makes them appear insane to the neighbours. Colin Seis & the Haggertys fit into the most extreme corner of this niche. But the more times I see people like this, and not just in Australia, a simple fact becomes clearer. They are all farming in conditions that would not be considered very productive – either through soil type, climate, or both. Is that a coincidence? Are farmers on good land just lazy, and have never had to break the mould in order to survive? Or is it that it is actually better, and more profitable, to farm in the conventional high input systems? It certainly makes me wonder whether taking inspiration from Western Australia, or North Dakota, is actually a sensible idea when we farm in northern Europe, most of which is much more productive than anywhere else in the world.
A lot of the farmers I want to meet have a desire to expand their businesses, but they also lament the price of land, either to buy or to rent. There’s a pretty clear conflict here though: not everyone can expand. So it should come as no surprise that prices go up and up – but someone is always able to pay. If not, then maybe a look in the mirror is needed. I think if you cannot make the numbers work for rent then you’re probably not as efficient as the guy who can.
If these ideas of regenerative, conservation agriculture really are so much better, then soon we will have to start seeing the farmers using them become the big players, gobbling up all the land around them. It’s the way of the world, and only a matter of time, or else they will themselves be taken over by whichever system is making the most £s or $s. Perhaps we are at the start of that curve, but wanting it to be true doesn’t mean it is.
I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone who has given me their time, I hope I haven’t got too many things wrong. Also an equally big thank you for all the hospitality, you know who you are.
The last day in Australia, and technically I don’t need to do any more travelling for Nuffield. They stipulate a minimum of 8 weeks travel, and last time I checked, that’s 56 days. Don’t tell my wife.
I’ve spent the last couple of nights with the Barrett-Lennards who live just north of Gingin. It’s their fault, through great hospitality, that I got behind on the blogs and have had to write three this afternoon. I’m knackered now so will have to make do with a slide show instead of a proper blog.
I spent the night near Gingin, but I’ll come back to that in tomorrow’s blog. A bit of last minute planning was called on to arrange a visit to Diane Haggerty, who farms with her husband Ian on the more marginal land on the eastern side of the wheat belt. They have an interesting story, having run a petrol station for the first part of their marriage, before buying 660ha of run down farmland next to Diane’s parents’ farm. They put all of their money in to the land, and had none left over for machinery. Luckily being next to Dad has its benefits, so they could borrow a drill and tractor. This was in 1994, and luckily two good years followed, which allowed them to make some money. In the early 2000s they took on their first bit of rented land, and promptly had a total crop failure – but they scraped through.
Since then they have managed to buy a little bit more land, but mainly the business has grown by renting degraded land that other farmers don’t even bid for. The problem here is that the leases are short term, and once they have reversed the decline in productivity, the landlords then want more money and the neighbours come in with bigger bids. Currently they farm 9,300ha, but that changes year on year.
Like I said at the beginning, this is really marginal land, where 2t/ha is considered a big harvest and the annual rainfall is 100mm. The name of the game is to keep down costs and reduce risk. To achieve this, Diane & Ian have focused heavily on soil health, and nutrient cycling. It is too expensive to ship in quality compost, which costs A$200 before shipping, so they use compost extract, and also worm juice. Worm juice, delicious as it may sound, is actually what seeps out the bottom of compost heaps at special worm factories. I can’t help but think it sounds like a kid’s version of Snake Oil! These two liquids are applied at 5l/ha, normally at drilling, but the worm juice can also be sprayed on to the plant directly as a foliar application. In addition to these potions, they use some herbicide, but no insecticides or fungicides. Conventional fertilisers are placed at drilling, but in such small amounts I’m amazed they bother: 1kg/ha of phosphate and between 2-10kg/ha of nitrogen. Leaf tissue testing tells them when trace elements are needed, and they are put on as foliar sprays. Needless to say, the sheep operation uses long rest rotational grazing.
So what are the results? Wheat yields are less than conventional in a good year, but the same in drier ones. Quality though is much improved, with top level proteins being produced all the time. The same is true of the sheep flock, as they have increased lambing percentages to somewhere between 90-150% depending on the season, and the wool quality (these are Merinos) normally reaching the second highest grade, AAAM. It’s also worth noting that they don’t have to de-worm the sheep, which is very unusual.
Diane says her crops stay green a lot longer than the neighbours, and showed me some photos that were fairly emphatic. Unfortunately it’s the wrong time of year for me to see with my own eyes. SOM levels are 40-50% higher than the neighbours (at the home farm), but this must be considered whilst remembering how unreliable these tests can be.
I’ve got a lot of respect for how far these two have come from starting with very little. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted, or probably been able to, do what they have. I am noticing a trend with these sort of out-there systems though. More of that in the final Australia blog.
After leaving Diane I went to see someone at the other end of the spectrum. Trevor Syme runs 60 cows, which he feeds on Tagasaste (see above), but is really a specialist arable farmer. Although he farms only about 60km west of the Haggertys, there is much more rain so wheat yields can reach over 4t/ha.
It’s still an unfriendly place to farm though, as the top soil is non-wetting sand, which means it is coated in a waxy substance which makes water either sit on the top as a puddle, or just soak through incredibly quickly. His solution is to bring up some of the subsoil clay and mix it in with the sand. There are three ways to do this,
- Mouldboard ploughing – doesn’t work too well on these soils as the clay depth is too variable.
- Delving & spading – a huge set of legs are pulled very deep through the soil (see photo above), which brings up the clay, and mixes it through the soil profile. After this a spader is used, which is a bit like putting it in a cement mixer.
- “Claying” – here several pits are dug in the field, and clay is mined out of them. It is then spread out over the rest of the field at a rate of…250t/ha (not a typo). A set of discs are then used to mix the clay into the top 10″. This costs almost A$1,000/ha in total.
Obviously none of these are what you might call low disturbance, but the payoff can be big. Delving and spading can give a 1t/ha increase in wheat yield, and Claying up to 1.6t/ha. It only takes 3 years or so to pay back, and should last for at least 10.
Trevor is unusual in that he grows lupins as a full season cover crop – i.e. he plants in the autumn and then sprays them off before reaching maturity. He doesn’t use sheep or cattle to graze the plants as I expected, but he just leaves them until the next autumn and sows directly into it with his NDF disc drill. The reason he does this is mainly for weed control (the dreaded ryegrass), but it also allows him to grow a fertiliser-free wheat crop afterwards.
Two farms and two very different philosophies. Which is better? Who knows?
Another two visits today. The first was to Rob Egerton-Warburton, who farms 5,000ha near Kojonup. He always thought that a career in IT was going to be his future, and his brother would be the farmer. After travelling he came back home and found he enjoyed it, and for a while the two of them farmed together – and bought some more land. After a few years the brother decided to go and work as a computer programmer, and left Rob to do the farming. Funny how these things work out.
The farm is split roughly 50:50 between livestock and sheep at any one point, which Rob reckons is about the sweet spot for profitability. Like a lot of Aussie farmers he thinks that you get more from a mixed farm than the sum of the individual parts. It’s a lot of work, but amazing that they can crop 2,500ha and look after 13,000 head of sheep with only two full time employees.
On one new bit of land, which was very unproductive, they spread lime, and then ploughed it in. Into this they drilled lucerne, and left it for a few years to be used as grazing for the sheep. Now that the soil has been improved, Rob can drill wheat directly into it when the lucerne goes dormant over winter, and he is finding that he needs no extra fertiliser at all to get the same yields as his other crops – that’s a saving of around 100-150kg of urea, which is pretty significant.
There are a couple of interesting things happening here with the actual crop drilling. One is that Rob is going against the trend of having wider rows – most people I have seen are at 300mm. He is planning on going down to about half of this, which is more European. The reasons are increased yield and also better weed competition for the ryegrass. There’s a lot of conflicting information on this subject, I think it really needs on farm trials to see what works where. The other technique he’s using is to sow the rows east-west when possible. The idea here is that it allows less light to get down between the rows and on to the weeds. He claims a 5-10% increase in yield, and a 50% reduction in weeds. Big numbers!
Next up I headed back north again, almost to where I started the day with the Pascoe’s. Rob Rex is another sheep/cropping farmer, I won’t go into all the details again. They grow a few lupins, which is a good crop, but somewhat risky with the climate. After harvest the sheep are let out onto the stubbles. Apparently 20ha of lupin stubble will maintain 4,000 sheep for a month; I find this pretty incredible. Surely there must be a lot of losses from the combine to provide that much food?
This is the first cover crop I’ve seen in Australia. There was a bit of spare moisture, and a degraded pasture that needed a little refreshing, so Rob (Rex) whipped out the drill and put in some warm season plants – sorghum and lablab, which is a new one on me. The lablab is a member of the bean family which has been brought over from Africa. It seemed to be growing pretty well, although it had no nodules at all. I wonder if perhaps it needs inoculating with a specific rhizobium which isn’t naturally present in these soils.
This is also one of the few farms I’ve found which has got some perennial warm season grasses to grow in the grazing paddocks. There is a common theme though everywhere that they seem to be successful: long rest times between grazings. No brainer.
Early start today, 5am, although it was a lie in compared to yesterday. You can fly in Australia without showing any sort of ID at all, which feels unusual. I thought it was a mistake the first time it happened.
I had to be in Perth early to meet Dr Ken Flower, from the University of Western Australia. They have been running a trial comparing different crop rotations under no-till systems, which is currently in its 9th year. The four treatments they have used are,
- Maximum carbon – continuous cereals, including wheat, barley & oats
- Maximum diversity – cereals, OSR/Canola/Legume & occasional cover crops
- Controls – Permanent pasture & continuous wheat
- Maximum profit/standard district practice – cereals & legumes
All of the treatments are also split into high and low residue sections. In the high residue all the straw is kept, whereas in the low it is wind rowed and burnt. They have been measuring profit levels, weed burdens, soil biology, soil carbon, and I’m sure plenty of other bits and bobs too. Here’s a summary of some of the interesting things they have found, both in the trial and generally in the region.
- Despite having more fungal problems, and possibly more insect damage, the continuous wheat treatment is actually the most profitable. It also seems to be requiring less nitrogen each year, possibly as soil-borne N fixing bacteria becomes more prevalent.
- As of yet, there is no difference in SOM between any of the treatments. Ken thinks that one may start to show up in the longer term, but the effect is subtle if it exists at all.
- There is also no difference in SOM between burning the residues and keeping them. This backs up some results from NZ on the same subject, and is contrary to the general belief of people involved in Conservation Agriculture etc.
- In some circumstances mouldboard ploughing has doubled farmers’ yields. The mechanism for this is a reduction in the non-wetting properties of their soils, and it also makes lime applications more effective.
- In other situations, mouldboard ploughing can be catastrophic, as it allows massive wind erosion in a very short time.
- Grazing stubbles with sheep has no effect on following crop yields, and does not really reduce the amount of carbon returned to the soil.
- Grazing a growing wheat crop normally impacts its final yield, and also has the potential to cause significant weed problems. This is the opposite to what Hugh Dove told me, but several other farmers I have seen since have agreed that weeds can be stimulated by the grazing.
After leaving Perth I headed down to Arthur River and met up with John Pascoe, who farms 2,000ha of pretty unfriendly rock-strewn land. I wouldn’t like to drive a combine around there, I’d pick up a boulder for sure. He runs 5,000 ewes on a mixture of permanent pasture and in rotation with his crops.
John’s big thing is microbes, both for the crops and in the future the livestock too. He buys a blend of bacteria (not sure yet exactly what’s in it, need to find that out) and then uses it as a seed dressing. There have been some interesting results in his on-farm trials: When treated with the bacteria, the fertiliser need is massively reduced, to the point where sometimes there is no response to added N (and it yields the same as normally treated seed with full fertiliser rates). Interestingly, when a normal, fungicide dressed, seed is planted and not fertilised, it has a much lower yield. This would suggest that the fungicide dressings are impeding some sort of microbial interactions in the growing plant – presumably mycorrhizae. Sounds like an interesting idea to try out in the UK.
15km/h seems a ludicrously fast speed to combine at, especially with a 13.7m header. I sat on the machine for 2 hours, and we cut about 35ha.
I spent the day today with Michael Eyres, from Injekta Systems, who has organised the last couple of visits for me. He’s a soil agronomist, which basically means he advises on how best to get nutrition into plants according to what type of soil you have on your farm. We drove up to Jamestown to see one of his clients, who has just taken on a new piece of land that he wanted testing.
Michael is meticulous in his soil sampling technique, and he will make sure that each individual layer is tested separately. Often he will spend a day digging proper pits, but this was a quicky so they just took little core samples. This particular farm has two very distinct layers within the top 10cm or so. The top 5cm is particularly high in potassium which makes the clay particles stick together very closely – an artefact that is apparently often blamed on compaction caused by sheep grazing. When this bit is crumbled by hand it turns into a very fine, almost dusty, powder. The second layer is higher in magnesium, and forms into harder, but more distinct lumps. Beneath this is a high magnesium clay layer, which when dry is very, very hard. This soil type is more suited to tine type direct drills, as it is beneficial to have a cultivation effect to break up the top crust.
Back in June I wrote a little bit about the common way of testing for SOM (Soil Organic Matter), which is the LOI (Loss On Ignition) test. This is done by burning the sample, and then seeing how much less it weighs afterwards. Anything that has gone is assumed to be SOM. This can be problematic, as it does not distinguish between a piece of fresh straw and older, more stable forms of soil carbon (humus, not humous). Here in Australia they use a test called Walkley-Black. The difference is that the sample is put through a very fine, 0.42mm, sieve first of all to take out larger (and presumably un-decomposed) items, and then… well it’s easier if you read it here;
The method measures the amount of carbon in plant and animal remains, including soil humus but not charcoal or coal
Oxidisable matter in the soil is oxidised by 1 N K2Cr2O7 solution. The reaction is assisted by the heat generated when two volumes of H2SO4 are mixed with one volume of the dichromate. The remaining dichromate is titrated with ferrous sulphate. The titre is inversely related to the amount of C present in the soil sample.
So there you have it. I don’t know if the result is actually more accurate than LOI, but it seems like it should be.
A further point of interest that came up was the efficacy of glyphosate (Roundup) in hard water. It’s something that has been on my mind for the last year, but I’ve not yet been proactive enough to actually do anything about it. According to Michael, the optimum pH for glyphosate is 3.2. This is much lower than our water, which I guess would be about 8. The problem is that in hard water the calcium ions bind with the active ingredients, making them less effective. He recommends the cool (no pun intended) sounding “Glacial Acetic Acid” to bring down the pH. It’s fairly easy to get hold of, so I have no excuse for not giving it a go. It’s also worth noting that, even at low pHs, it is still necessary to use ammonium sulphate water conditions to get the best effect, as this helps out in a different way to simply changing pH.
The farmer we visited has a 3 year old Conserva Pak drill, which is rigged up with a Liquid Systems (see yesterday’s blog) pump. The seed cart, which weighs 15t when full, has 3 sections. The largest is for solid fertiliser, which is straight MAP for legumes, or an MAP/Urea blend for cereals and OSR. The next compartment is for seed, and the smallest is for the liquid trace elements, and also inoculants for legumes and fungicides for OSR. The liquid tank actually started life as a solid fertiliser hopper, but was sprayed inside with a polymer to waterproof it, and then just had a metering system fitted on the bottom. You can see it fairly clearly in the picture above. The Conserva Pak drill works by putting solid fertiliser down behind the front tine, and then the seed goes down the back leg. The liquid goes in the same trench as the seed, again you can see it clearly in the picture.
I played some Aussie Rules this evening, but there are no pictures, probably because I was only allowed on the pitch for about 3 minutes. Bloody Poms.
It’s the third time in three days that I drove this road, in hindsight I should have stayed out here really. First of all this morning I had a quick visit to Liquid Systems, who live in an industrial estate in the Adelaide suburbs. They are a small company, started by serial engineer Pete Burgess.
He claims to have developed the world’s best system for delivering liquids fertilisers into a seed trench. Actually it doesn’t have to be fertilisers, they can also put down fungicides, inoculants, acidifiers etc etc. One of the main distinguishing features is how the whole setup is under positive pressure, not gravity fed like a lot of the competitors. This means blockages are less likely, and the flow can be started and stopped much more quickly and accurately. It isn’t quite as quick as an air cutoff sprayer, but not far away; there’s maybe a 1-2 second delay from flicking the switch. The other claim to fame is a much higher working speed range, and all whilst keeping a constant stream as well. John Deere have measured the coefficient of variation between nozzles at 5%. This compares to 75% with some other machines.Section control is available – this means that instead of turning the whole drill off and on, there can be up to 8 different sections, which allows more precise control. Perhaps more interestingly, they are also developing a direct injection system, so that up to 6 different chemicals could be independently applied with variable rates. I suspect this could also have an application with sprayers?
Of course, the bigger question is what chemicals do we want to put down the drill?
My second visit was back out towards the coast again, to see 6th generation farmer Rich McFarlane. He’s another one who has gone away from arable and tilted towards livestock. Again, it was to get away from the spiralling arable input costs, and the very uncertain returns they were making.
Rich has been rotationally grazing his herd of Angus for the last three years, and is just starting to see some of the native grasses coming back. Amazingly, pretty much all of their pasture is made up from annual, cool season, species. I guess that speaks a lot to how the grazing has been managed in the past. The result is that over summer, the only thing that really grows is lucerne.
They use an interesting variation on rotational grazing that I haven’t heard of before, called the Drewes system. The idea is to vary the intensity of grazing that each field gets each year, to try and increase the overall biodiversity. At the start of year 1, the most productive field becomes the “Primary” grazing field, and the least is the “Sabbath” field. The animals start on the Primary, and then move onto the next in line, and the next, always moving towards the Sabbath. However, whenever the Primary has recovered enough, the animals are immediately sent back there – and it all starts again. Unless conditions are very bad, they will never reach all the way to the Sabbath, and that field will have an entire year’s rest. The following year, the Primary become the Sabbath, and a new Primary is selected. I’m not sure that is an entirely good idea, but it will be interesting to see how it goes anyway.
In the last few years of cropping, Rich had started to use a liquid injector in his drill, similar to the ones I saw this morning (not sure if it was made by the same guys or not). He had been putting down liquid calcium, and phosphate – these apparently don’t mix very well, and often used to block up, but the results had been generally positive. Anyway, in the final year they had started to add into this an extract of compost. It is similar to a compost tea, but without the added bacteria. Basically a few buckets of compost are agitated with water, and out it comes – brown liquid bug food. This went down the drill at 100l/ha, to apparently satisfactory results. No data though, and the next year all the machines went and more cows arrived. End of experiment.
I haven’t see any, but it’s real snake country in this part of the world. Especially next to the lakes, where Tiger snakes like to live. In honour of that, I thought I would just park this amusing video here for some light relief.
I really needed a helicopter today, it was a long drive for a short distance. I’m very jealous that these guys can grow such a wide variety of fruits in their garden: apples, apricots, figs, oranges, lemons, limes, quince, mulberries, plums… I guess there are not many climates that would support all of them.
This was another last minute Nuffield phone call, but there was a double chance of success as both people living in the house are past scholars: Cathy Harvey is a trained vet, and Dave come from a farming family. They are farming 2,000ha of non-wetting sandy soils, which supports a herd of purebred Angus which they breed and take all the way to finishing, and also a 250 cow dairy.
Having spent the first part of his farming career as a high input/high output farmer, Dave tried out some biological farming techniques, and found they worked pretty well. After a few years of doing that, they discovered a demand for Biodynamic milk had opened up near by. The move from biological to certified Organic, and from there to Biodynamic, was not a huge leap, and so they went for it.
Beef production was unaffected, but milk production went down from 7,000l per cow to 5,500l, although at the same time they stopped using pure Holstein animals, and started crossing with Jerseys: the famous “Kiwi Cross”. With around a 30% premium for the Biodynamic meat and milk, it seems like a no-brainer when production levels stay similar.
Around 10% of the farm is cropped each year, normally with barley, which is then fed to the dairy cows as a supplement. Vetch is often grown before the barley, and then incorporated – they have measured up to 50kg/ha of nitrogen from this in a good year. After barley, it is common to plant a lucerne ley, which will stay in place for a decade, this is used to fatten the Angus steers on.
Dave sees the main benefit of his system as being the lower risk which comes from having much lower inputs. This is something I’ve heard before in Australia, particularly when comparing livestock enterprises with arable. He also claims a quadrupling of profit from the old system to the current one. In addition it makes them both much more content with how they are treating their farm.
We spoke over lunch about Biodynamics, and some of its stranger prescriptions. I’m still of the opinion that the techniques and formulations they use could have sound principles backing them up, but I do not buy the explanations about atoms’ vibrations etc etc. But as Cathy said “just because you don’t understand how something works, doesn’t mean it won’t work”. Just ask Gregor Mendel. We don’t yet fully understand the chemistry of soils and plant nutrition, let alone how microbial life interacts on top of that; so we should not be hasty in rubbishing different ideas.
That then brings up the question of proof. It’s fair enough if something unexplained works, but then it must be able to be measured – I do believe in the scientific principle. I’ve seen no proof here that Biodynamics works. BUT I have been to plenty of other farms (almost everywhere in fact) where at least once I have asked why someone does something, and how they know it is better. The answer is almost always that they have no proof, it’s just a feeling. It could be the type of drill they use, a grazing technique, or anything else; although rarely does it involve cows’ skulls, or stags’ bladders. Or Field Broadcasters.