Day 61 – Jesus: Rice Superstar

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I’d only ever spent 3 hours in Uruguay before this trip, but for some reason I’ve always liked it. This time there was no queue at customs, my bag was the first off the plane (that’s a new one for me) and I could buy a cheap local sim card at the airport. A great start. Unfortunately I had not been able to arrange anything constructive for the weekend, so it was tourist time. After mucking around for a couple of days I headed to Treinta y Tres (which means thirty three), and spent the night in a hotel which was perfectly comfortable, but wouldn’t have been out of place in 1964 Bulgaria.

This morning I had an appointment with Jesus Castillo, a rice agronomist working for INIA. He had been recommended to me by Michael Eyres as someone who knew all about improving soils.

I've eaten plenty of rice, but never seen it growing

I’ve eaten plenty of rice before, but never seen it growing

INIA is partly funded by the government, and partly by the farmers, through levies on their sales. They perform trials in both cropping and livestock management, as well as having big labs which will test grains, forage, or whatever the farmer needs. Their building was quite new, and very smart, in stark contrast to similar government organisations over the river in Argentina.

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Angus x Hereford steers, finished on grass, almost ready for the freezer

They’ve got some of the best soil in the country over here, but it’s only 30cm deep, with a clay subsoil. That means they don’t have a huge water holding capacity, and so are normally either too dry, or totally flooded. Traditionally there has been a lot of grazing, and that continues today. It’s one of the few places in the world where it is standard practice to graze both sheep and cattle in the same field at the same time. I’ve always thought this sounded like a pretty sensible idea, but all my (super conservative) vet friends start having a fit when you mention it.

Some general rice photos, because its novel

Some general rice photos, because its novel

They have two research stations near Treinta y Tres, for upland and lowland systems. The upland system is dry land farming, and they are testing three rotations. All the rotations have two years where they grow soya beans – wheat – sorghum – oat cover crop. At this point they differ: one starts all over again, and the other two go into pasture, either for two years or four.

On the lowland farms, the main crop is the rice. Uruguay is the second most productive rice growing country on the planet – only the USA averages a higher yield per hectare. On the low land INIA station they also have rotation trials, ranging from intensive rice – cover crop – soya – cover crop, to the traditional rice and perennial pasture.

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The cover crop they tend to use in this lowland trial is Italian ryegrass. What’s really interesting is that they put it on with an airplane, both into the soya and the rice. Uniquely, in my experience, they are happy with the results, and say it gives a good even germination. This is understandable in the rice, as they put it on just after the field is drained, so there is plenty of moisture in the soil. In the soya it goes on about a month before harvest, timed just before the leaves start to fall off. When the leaf does come off, it covers the ryegrass seed and provides humidity to help germination. In both cases, after harvest the grass is 5cm or so tall, and gets going very quickly – to be grazed before the next cash crop is planted.

The trial results are interesting – SOM is maintained in all the rotations that include pastures, and degraded in the ones that don’t. However, they have only just started using cover crops in the last couple of years, and the hope is that this may make the continuous cropping more sustainable.

A cover crop trial of different warm season legumes. Mucuna, Crotalaria Spectabilis and Crotalaria Juncea. they seem to like straight cover crops here more than blends

A cover crop trial of different warm season legumes. Mucuna, Crotalaria Spectabilis and Crotalaria Juncea. They seem to like straight cover crops here more than blends

In the ’50s & ’60s no-till had not been adopted, and traditional farming methods were terrible at controlling erosion. The average farm lost 20-30t/ha of soil each year, into the rivers. Since the ’90s this has improved a lot, but in the last three years the government has decided it had to do something about the country’s soils – agriculture is a big proportion of Uruguay’s GDP. What they have come up with is a system whereby the landowner (and farmer if it is a different person) must submit their long-term cropping plans for approval. Trial data from INIA is used to predict how this rotation will affect the soil erosion, taking into account topography, soil types, climate, use of cover crops, pasture phases etc. The magic number is 7t/ha. If you lose more soil than this each year, you will not get approval to go farming (or else there’s a big fine). It sounds like a pretty sensible way of protecting the country’s asset, although given what has happened in the UK with the three crop rule (no one is telling ME how to farm!) I don’t think it would be a popular move – especially because here they often stipulate at least some pasture.

Apparently this opener is very good in dry conditions. Looks a lot like a T-Sem

Apparently this opener is very good in dry conditions. Looks a lot like a T-Sem

Of course it does beg the question, why settle for any soil loss at all? Apparently even with low intensity farming on native grasslands they still lose ~2t/ha/yr, but in the past something must have created the soil. Maybe God? In my opinion, if they find out how to make soil, with profitability taken out of the equation, then maybe some of those techniques could be used in day-to-day farming. Sounds like a good topic for a Nuffield.

Day 60 – Viva la resistencia

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Last day in Rosario, and here’s a tip if you ever visit. Don’t go to a sushi restaurant.

Again I was hosted by AAPRESID, and it occurs to me I haven’t actually mentioned them before now. AAPRESID is the Argentinian farmers no-till association, and it’s based in Rosario. They organise farmer groups, like CREA, but also run trials, and once a year organise a huge conference. And let’s not forget all the foreigners they kindly show around the country too.

Red Angus cows & bulls

Red Angus cows & bulls

Today’s visit was to a lady farmer who is using cattle to improve her soils. More specifically, there are some low-lying areas which have suffered from water erosion in the past, and she makes more money there with the animals than with crops. In fact, the beef price is so good here compared to grain that the animals are the most profitable side of the business. Given that the pastures are improving the soils, the brave move would be to put some of the crop fields down to grass for a few years. But that’s easy for me to say from here…

Bird's foot trefoil on left, mixed species ley on right

Bird’s foot trefoil on left, mixed species ley on right

The pastures hon this farm are far more complex than others I’ve seen in the country. Depending on the specific conditions in each field they use tall fescue, brome, lucerne/alfalfa, white clover, red clover and trefoil. The farm’s agronomist, Daniel Canova, is a big advocate for having as many different root types in a rotation as possible; he is sure that this helps to prevent compaction and keep the soils productive. These fields tick that box.

Superficially impressive root nodules on a Soya plant, although most of them were not functional

Superficially impressive root nodules on a Soya plant, although most of them weren’t functional

One of the problems in the GMO using world is the spread of glyphosate resistant weeds. AAPRESID have a team working on this, and they anticipate the number of resistant species will increase quickly in the coming years. We don’t use GMOs in the EU at the moment, but I’m sure that will change in the medium term. When the day comes, it’s of critical importance that we learn the lessons from all of these countries (north & south America, Australia etc) to keep our chemicals working. The temptation will be strong to be lazy: “it won’t happen to me”.

The biggest problems come from using the same crop every year, and then using multiple doses of the same chemical. Here that plant is soya, in the US it’s also maize. So step one is to keep on rotating crops, both for their differing natural weed suppression, but also because it will allow the use of different types of chemicals each year. But what if you have a field, like the pastures here, with have so many different plant types that chemical control is not possible?

Sorghum growing as part of a resistant-weed management technique

Forage sorghum growing as part of a resistant-weed management technique

These pastures are normally kept for four years, by which time they are getting a bit tired (I can’t help but feel some more involved grazing management would help here). At this point field is sprayed off with glyphosate. If there are enough resistant weeds left over, they will then drill oats. The reason for this is simple – their roots have strong allelopathic effects. This means that they exude chemicals which stop other plants from growing. [We currently have a field of oats at home which will hopefully reduce the amount of black grass in the following barley crop.]

Once the oats have grown enough, they are grazed, and then forage sorghum is planted on top of them. Again this will be grazed, but not when the plants are small as it can cause nitrate poisoning which is undesirable in cattle (their mouths turn blue and they die). There might be time for a couple of grazings before the new pasture is sown, but by now the weed burden should be reduced significantly. I think one of the reasons this works so well here is that all the weed seeds are left on the surface because of no-till, and in this climate they will be decomposed very quickly – even after maize the residue is totally gone within six months.

So there we have it, some ideas for farming in Europe in the ’20s. I’ll end with this photo of a typical Argentine motorcycle rider, taken on the motorway outside Buenos Aires.

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Day 59 – Irresistible oats

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Carmen is a huge farm – 10,000ha in an area where the average is 200. Not only that, but it is the biggest dairy in Argentina, with over 6,000 cows producing 100,000l of milk every day. It’s a massive operation, and is owned by one of the country’s agricultural behemoths, Adecoagro.

A 700ha field. The drill goes for 5km before it has to turn around and come back

A 700ha field. The drill goes for 5km before it has to turn around and come back

Eddie Nolan is the arable manager, and luckily for me he speaks great English because that’s the only way he could ask his Irish grandmother for sweets. Like everyone else in this country (continent?) they grow a lot of Soya, both on its own and as part of a double crop with wheat. The third part of the rotation is maize, which is either grown for grain, or for silage that is fed to the dairy cows.

There are two 3,000 cow units, each with an 80 place rotary parlour. The plan is to double up and have 12,000 cows within a few years

There are two 3,000 cow units, each with an 80 place rotary parlour. The plan is to double up and have 12,000 cows within a few years

As well as normal grain maize, they also grow hybrid seed for Syngenta (more profitable) and popcorn for cinemas et al (more delicious). Most of the maize is GM, and does not need to be sprayed with insecticides. Contrast this with the three sprays that the non-GMO varieties get: “I know which one I would rather eat” says Eddie.

A popcorn plant (left) vs a normal grain maize plant (right). the popcorn yields half as much but is sold for double. It is also not taxed by the government, so it's a more profitable crop

A popcorn plant (left) vs a normal grain maize plant (right). the popcorn yields half as much but is sold for double the price. It is also not taxed by the government, so it’s a more profitable crop

Eddie is mindful of his soils, and so after taking maize silage he tries to grow a cover crop. They have been doing this for about 12 years, which makes them incredibly early adopters in Argentina. The cover crop is usually wheat, but they are just starting to play around with adding vetch as well. I asked why he didn’t grow Avena Strigosa/Black Oats/Bristle Oats/whatever else you want to call them. The answer was that they are so good that the dairy boys sneak in and cut it for silage, so there is no organic matter returned to the soil, which somewhat defeats the purpose.

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The soil here is pretty sandy, but it is a very fine textured sand. Like at La Florida, there are high and low areas, called Loma & Bajo. Now I don’t speak Spanish, but I’m going to take a guess that these mean high & low… The soils are very deep; I couldn’t get an exact answer, but it is apparently much deeper than the roots will go. Eddie confirmed what I had heard a few days ago, that maize will root to 2m and wheat/soya to 1m.

Why this photo? Because I can, and it still amazes me that a phone will take these photos. On the right are a couple of aphids, slightly bigger than the ones at home

Why this photo? Because I can, and it still amazes me that a phone will take these photos. On the right are a couple of aphids, slightly bigger than the ones at home

Water is a big deal here, and the dairies use 1,000,000 litres (yes, million) per day in total. Almost all of this finds its way into a lagoon, where is waits until it can be used to irrigate the maize being grown for seed. Each pivot irrigator covers 150ha, and can put out about 10,000,000 litres of water in a day, which is 7mm over the entire area. Like I said, it’s a big operation.

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Rain

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This was the weather forecast for today:IMG_4549Luck I bought my rain coat, but could it really be that bad?

It was speckling rain as I left Rosario, heading towards a darkening sky.

Pretty soon “what pretty lightning” turned in to “this is quite heavy rain”

Not long afterwards we got to “Holy crap, where did the road go?”

You can’t quite see it in this video, but there was a car stuck in the junction to the left – it had flooded. Some of the junctions had river over a foot deep running through them. Downtown Parana would be a great theme park if you had an inner tube.

By lunch there had been 109mm, and outside visits were pretty well out of the question. But I did spend a few minutes in a maize field. One of the benefits of no-till is supposed to be better water infiltration, and on the 40% clay vertisol soils they have here, walking in the fields immediately after the rain was no problem. A good demonstration.

Day 57 – Dr Elaine Ingham

It seems to be traditional now for me to put a map on each post, so here it is.Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 11.12.31This is the only picture, so visual types might want to stop reading now.

Dr Elaine Ingham runs Soil Foodweb Inc and is world famous for her research in to [no prizes for guessing], the Soil Foodweb. She advocates that by getting the soil biology to be not only abundant, but also balanced, it is possible to make loads of money.

The method is fairly straight forward:

  • Don’t disturb the soil any more than necessary (no-till).
  • Provide food for the bugs to live on (leave plant residues on the surface).
  • Make use of properly made composts, and compost teas/extracts (no one makes proper compost in t he UK apparently).
  • And finally, never use any inorganic inputs. This includes fertilisers, herbicides, fungicides and insecticides. To be clear, this is going further than being certified organic, because they too can use toxic inorganic chemicals on their crops.

If you do it right, she claims that yields will not go down, in fact they will probably rise. The difference is that our conventional farming methods have turned the soil into bacterial hothouses, at the expense of pretty much everything else, from fungi to nematodes and others in between. That is not really surprising given the amount of fungicide we spray every year (fungicide seed dressings, and perhaps 4 extra foliar applications after this). Fungi are critical to growing crops efficiently and so not having enough of the right ones means we need more and more artificial fertilisers. A lack of fungi in general also means that there is room for the bad ones to come in and dominate, which is where root disease problems like take-all can start to cause problems. [To get around this we then use more fungicide, and the cycle continues. The same is true with the other types of soil life, and even when you go above ground, with insect pests too.]

As an example, we were shown a slide of a farm that grew oats conventionally. They yielded 3.5t/ha. This soil was heavily bacteria dominated, with almost no fungi. As a trial they treated some ground with compost and got it up to an even balance of bacteria and fungi. The yield, with no inputs, rose to 6.5t/ha. Elaine thinks that if the total amount of soil life was increased, but still kept balanced, the yields would double to around 13t/ha: “we have seen it occur”. That’s a big claim, which I think would exceed the world record oat yield. I will leave it up to you to decide if it sounds plausible.

One of the claims that I was particularly interested in was that “there are enough nutrients naturally occurring in your soil that you will never need to apply them”. I’ve written about this before, in particular whether we need to be apply phosphorus fertiliser or not. Elaine put up a slide showing average concentrations of nutrients that are found in soil around the world. For phosphorus the figure was 800ppm. I don’t know if that is what we have, but let’s do some maths.

An acre of soil 6″ deep weighs 1,000t.

A hectare of soil 6″ deep therefore weighs 2,470t.

A hectare of soil 10cm deep weighs 2,470*10/15.24 = 1,620t = 1,620,735kg

1,620,735/1,000,000 * 800 = 1,296kg/ha of P

According to RB209 every tonne of wheat grain removes 7.8kg of P2O5 = 3.4kg of P

So a 10t/ha wheat crop will remove 34kg/ha of P

1,296/34 = 38 years of P for each 10cm of soil you are extracting from.

Dr Ingham claims that mature forests store more nutrients as wood each year that we ever take off the land through grain farming, and that they have been going for millennia without any additional inputs. This may be true, and if you consider that tree roots can be found going down to 7m+ in depth, that would be (38*70) 2,660 years of P. Sounds plausible.

But how deep do we delve in a annual cropping system? Our plants do not have centuries to put down deep roots. Dr Ingham says “wheat, corn, rye, oats, etc can, and should, put roots down to 10 to 12 feet in the first month or two of their life”. I find it hard to believe that this is possible in a lot of situations – roots cannot grow into solid bedrock, and can they get into solid clay subsoils? Personally (with no science to back it up) I would be surprised if we get much more than a meter down, which would give us (38*10) 380 years of available P. But this also assumes that it is possible to extract right down to 0(zero)ppm. If you believe Neil Kinsey, this is not alway the case, so that may be overstating what is actually achievable. Of course, on the flipside, we may have 3,000pm of P in our soils, which would certainly mean there is a lot about. It needs testing.

One of the big benefits touted is that with healthy soil rotations become unnecessary. For centuries farmers have rotated crop types to stop pest problems building up. However, there are many people who believe that the longer you grow a particular crop, the more the soils becomes suited to it, and the more productive it will become. The problem is in reconciling these two opposing points of view. Dr Ingham thinks rotating crops is crazy – why go to the hassle of getting the soil working right for one species only to go and shake it all up again? These guys found that wheat yields increased when grown conventionally, which they put down to increasing populations of nitrogen fixing bacteria living free in the soil (There are three types of bacteria that fix nitrogen, only one of which lives in the root nodules of legumes). It’s an interesting idea, and one that would be incredibly convenient if it could be made to work.

The key is in the compost. As I said earlier, she reckons no one over here does it properly. It is critical that at no point anaerobic bacteria can be allowed to flourish, and that means turning the pile within the first few days (or even hours) to keep the temperature below 75C at all times. If done properly it will be finished after about 3 weeks, and will contain large numbers of all different types of soil life.

Once the soils are balanced, the pH will sort itself out (it does not want to be much higher than 7, otherwise nitrogen hangs around as NO3, which weeds love), plant pathogens never get to high enough levels to cause problems, nutrients will be made available to the plant, and weeds will not grow. This last one I find hard to believe. The theory is that different succession level plants have different biology niches, and so if you tailor your soil for your crop, nothing else will grow. But there are some weeds which are very similar to our cash crops, and I bet they would grow in the same conditions. It would be good to be wrong.

The recipe to “convert” your farm is straightforward. Before drilling your crop apply compost at around 10t/ha. Next drill your seeds, which have been soaked in compost extract and then dried. When the seedling has emerged spray with compost tea 3-4 times at 3 week intervals. That’s it. 0-20% yield increases, with effectively no inputs.

How does the saying go? If it looks to good to be true…[probably]…

Australia – Final Thoughts

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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This photo is unique on the blog. Firstly it wasn’t taken by me, and secondly, I’m in it. Who doesn’t like digging holes?

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.

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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.

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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.

Day 56 – Clovers, chaff carts & airports

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 15.18.09  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.

Phil's herd of 126 Red Angus cows & calves

Phil Barrett-Lennard’s herd of 126 Red Angus cows & calves

Phil's neighbour thinks he is mad. This is high quality oat & clover hay, but it is being left on the ground like this, where the cattle will graze it in situ. They apparently clean up every last bit, and it saves the cost of baling and muck spreading

Phil’s neighbour thinks he is mad. This is high quality oat & clover hay, but it is being left on the ground like this, where the cattle will graze it in situ. They apparently clean up every last bit, and it saves the cost of baling and muck spreading

This is a field of Triticale, Italian Ryegrass, and multiple clovers. Phil is very interested in different legumes from around the world, and keeps on telling me I should be trying new types of clover, like Balansa or Arrow Leaf

This is a field of Triticale, Italian Ryegrass, and multiple clovers. Phil is very interested in different legumes from around the world, and keeps on telling me I should be trying new types of clover, like Balansa or Arrow Leaf

On the way back to the airport I stopped off quickly to see another farmer, Damien Leeson. He uses a chaff cart, which collects all the chaff from the combine and dumps it in a big pile. In the autumn this can then be burnt, or fed to sheep - both of which reduce the amount of ryegrass seed by 85%

On the way back to the airport I stopped off quickly to see another farmer, Damien Leeson. He uses a chaff cart, which collects all the chaff from the combine and dumps it in a big pile. In the autumn this can then be burnt, or fed to sheep – both of which reduce the amount of ryegrass seed by 85%

The next leg, starting in 20 minutes

The next leg, starting in 20 minutes

Day 55 – Worm juice & Claying

Screen Shot 2014-11-23 at 10.51.25I 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.

A 200ha field - probably the average farm size in East Anglia

A 200ha field – probably the average farm size in East Anglia

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.

Tagasaste, also know as Tree Lucerne

Tagasaste, also know as Tree Lucerne. The cows live permanently in these fields, eating the bushes and also the grass for a bit of roughage

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.

The delver - it takes 450hp to pull at 8km/h

The delver – it takes 450hp to pull at 8km/h

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,

  1. Mouldboard ploughing – doesn’t work too well on these soils as the clay depth is too variable.
  2. 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.
  3. “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.

This field has been delved, but not yet spaded. The pink rock is clay that has been brought up - it has a lot of sand mixed into it

This field has been delved, but not yet spaded. The pink rock is clay that has been brought up – it has a lot of sand mixed into it

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?

This is an NDF drill, made in Australia. It is a single disc with a compound angle, which means it pulls itself into the ground. It's a serious bit of kit, and rivals the Cross Slot for sturdy construction - and price. Each opener is A$4,500

This is an NDF drill, made in Australia. It is a single disc with a compound angle, which means it pulls itself into the ground. It’s a serious bit of kit, and rivals the Cross Slot for sturdy construction – and price. Each opener is A$4,500

Day 54 – Lucerne, Lupins & Lablab

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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.

Lucerne understory in wheat

Lucerne

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!

Lupins

Lupins

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?

Lablab

Lablab (and sorghum)

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.