Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 094 September-October 2011 - North
By Nicole Baxter n Stored soil moisture and, specifically, knowing how much there is, has become the basis of risk management on Bruce Watson and his family’s three dryland properties near Parkes, NSW. As a defence against climate uncertainty they have installed a network of moisture probes to provide hard data for cropping decisions. Bruce, 33, who farms 3700 hectares with his wife Karina, parents Jim and Janelle, sister Katrina and brother-in-law Mark, recently installed six capacitance probes to accurately measure stored soil moisture. The family is also involved in a Kondinin Group trial comparing the on-farm performance of four different soil moisture meters available from Adcon, Aquaspy, Measurement Engineering Australia (MEA) and Sentek. Bruce says he installed the probes for three reasons: n to assess how much moisture is in the profile to help with crop planning; n to ensure nitrogen is not wasted on crops that do not have sufficient subsoil moisture to support additional biomass production; and n to assist with marketing decisions – as an accurate picture of available moisture will help, particularly if they forward sell their grain. Bruce points to their experience in 2007 when the crops looked great, but were existing on practically zero moisture. “A week of abnormally high temperatures in October after our lowest ever July–October growing season rainfall and they just died off,” he says. “Had we known the soil moisture situation we would have been buying those forward positions back in July when our profiles were drying out.” In response to hedging losses at the end of that season, the family sought funding through the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) and the Woolworths Drought Initiative to install the network of moisture probes. The family has bought another two probes at $5000 each. Moisture probes put hard data into crop planning “Basically, if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” Bruce says. This year the probes will be used to determine if there is enough stored soil moisture in October to plant sorghum as an opportunity crop. Information provided by the probes is allowing Bruce to better utilise rain from summer storms. “Given the changing pattern of our rainfall, I am planning to sow 100ha of dryland sorghum this year as a trial to see if summer crops can grow successfully in this area.” Traditionally, the summer cropping belt cuts off around Dubbo, but with the wetter- than-average 2010, sorghum plantings have been edging south. However, if the probes do not indicate a full moisture profile, sorghum will not be planted. If the sorghum does go in, Bruce is hoping to also see the added benefits of better weed management. On the weeds front, they inherited a Group A-resistant ryegrass problem when they bought the Gunningbland property in 2005. In response, the family have used Roundup Ready® canola as a clean-up tool. “GM canola is tailor-made for that scenario,” he says. To guard against glyphosate resistance, Bruce rotates his chemical groups and hopes a sorghum crop will allow atrazine and winter fallows to be used. The major winter weed threats on the farms include black oats, isolated patches of ryegrass, barley grass, fumitory and sowthistle. “We have a couple of paddocks where black oats have started to show Group A resistance,” he says. “But with chemical rotation, double-knock and Roundup Ready® canola, I’m hoping we can get on top of that.” To manage weeds over summer and store all available moisture, Bruce sprays his fallows two to three times, followed by a pre-emergent herbicide. Subsequent operations include sowing, post-emergent herbicide application and, if the season is wet, fungicide spraying. All these operations work out at six to eight passes on their tramlines each year. Bruce says the controlled-traffic farming system, introduced in 2006, has several benefits including: n a 20 per cent reduction in fuel use; n better soil structure, improving water infiltration and plant root development; n better paddock access enabling more timely applications; and n the ability to more easily implement inter-row planting of crops into the previous year’s stubble. During summer, common glyphosate targets include summer grass, heliotrope, melons, hairy panic and fleabane. “That’s where I could see a WeedSeeker® coming in,” Bruce says. “But I need to generate some more free cashflow to justify the investment.” While the aim is to retain stubble, Bruce, Jim, Mark and their agronomist Peter Yelland this year made the decision to burn stubble for the first time since 2006 to improve crop emergence and maintain sowing speed. “I don’t like burning stubble because cover is what drives our system, but you also can’t be too much of a fundamentalist about these things.” To improve stubble handling, Bruce is considering moving from 333-millimetre (13-inch) row spacing to 381mm (15-inch). Like many growers across the country, he says frost has become a challenge and he intends to plant different crops and varieties on frost-suceptible areas and is looking more carefully at altitude, paddock type and crop choice when deciding where cultivars will be sown. Although having a frost-tolerant wheat variety would be beneficial, Bruce argues that land systems research (such as controlled-traffic farming and zero-till) has yielded more benefits than variety research. “If you don’t have your weed control, nutrition, stubble management and time-of-sowing right, if you don’t check seed quality and carry out soil tests, the best varieties aren’t going to save you.” For the coming year, Bruce is positive. His main concern is that if eastern Australia has another large production year, the farm- Key points n Moisture probes installed on-farm n Frost an increasing challenge n Controlled-traffic farming and disc seeders now crucial SNAPSHOT Owners: Jim, Janelle, Bruce, Karina and William Watson; Katrina and Mark Swift Location: Tichborne, Gunningbland and Eugowra, NSW Farm size: 3700ha; 3400ha cropped Rainfall (annual): 550mm; (2010) 1000mm Rainfall (GSR): 300mm; (2010) 441mm Soil types: black self-mulching, granite- based sand/loam Soil pH: 5.0 to 7.0 (calcium chloride) Typical crop sequence: canola/wheat/ wheat/triticale or barley Tractor: Case MX285 Sowing equipment: 12m NDF disc seeder (with 3m wheel spacing) set on 333mm row spacing, 12,000L Bourgault triple airseeder bin Spraying equipment: 24m 1264C Rogator with AirMix 02, Turbo Teejet 02, Hardi Minidrift 03, Hardi Minidrift and Lowdrift 015 nozzles Harvesting equipment: none owned, contractor used Spreading equipment: 1264C Rogator with 24m spreading width Crops grown 2011: wheat (1470ha), barley (430ha), canola (820ha), triticale (550ha), albus lupins (30ha), grain sorghum (100ha) Photo: NiCole Baxter nuffield scholar Bruce Watson plants wheat on 333mm row spacings. He and his family are considering the advantages and disadvantages of widening the spacing to 381mm to better handle heavy stubble loads. SePteMBer – oCtoBer 2011 GrouNd Cover Farm management 19 to-market supply chain might not cope owing to poorly maintained infrastructure. He says some suppliers are now offering $30-a-tonne premiums if growers truck their grain to port. “But that’s not the most efficient pathway to market ... and the wider community doesn’t want more trucks on the road.” Nonetheless, he is upbeat about the future. “It’s exciting days in agriculture, but at the end of the day it still has to pay,” he says. “Since 2005, we’ve gone backwards in equity, but we’re a stronger business as a result because we have just about had everything possible thrown at us and hopefully we can use that experience in the future.” □ More information: Bruce Watson, 0408 464 776, email@example.com While the past 10 years have tested the resilience of many farming businesses, one grain grower and his family with properties near parkes in central west nsW say the challenges have made them stronger “BASiCALLy, iF yOu CAN’T MEASuRE iT, yOu CAN’T MANAGE iT.” – BRuCE WATSON.
Ground Cover 095 November-December 2011 - North
Ground Cover 093 July-August 2011 - North