Ground Cover North : Ground Cover 064 September-October 2006 - North
BY BOB FREEBAIRN n No-till cropping tends to polarise farmers: while many with mixed cropping/grazing enterprises have yet to be convinced by it, others tend to become determined converts once they have taken the first steps towards change. Northern New South Wales farmers Andrew and Meegan Young, of ‘Napier’ at Purlewaugh, east of Coonabarabran, fall into the latter camp and are showing how a farm with mixed soil types and with both grain and livestock enterprises can benefit significantly from no-till cropping. No-till has been exhaustively researched for the past 30 years in Australia and some farmers have been advocates for nearly as long, yet the subject of a March 2006 conference in Tamworth (sponsored by the GRDC) was why adoption rates have stalled. Overall adoption in the northern half of NSW and Queensland (the Northern GRDC region) is still below 50 per cent, and lower again among mixed farmers, especially where soil types are other than self-mulching clays and clay loams. Andrew and Meegan Young are an interesting exception. They first tried no-till 10 years ago and since 1998 have, with a few exceptions, converted fully. Mr Young says no-till has proved to be more profitable, saves an enormous amount of time, does not require expensive machinery replacements, has almost eliminated soil erosion and has markedly improved soil quality. ‘Napier’ is a typical mixed farm in a 600-millimetre average rainfall area with slight summer predominance. Like almost all northern areas, the distribution pattern from year to year varies enormously and the property has had its share of difficult seasons in the past six years. Annually the Youngs crop 400 hectares of their 1134ha property with wheat (270ha) and canola (130ha). The remainder is pasture – 400ha lucerne, 120ha introduced subtropical grasses and the balance based on improved native grass. Livestock include a 200-head breeding herd with offspring generally marketed at 18 to 24 months. Trade animals are also sometimes carried. Soil type varies, with heavy self-mulching clay, predominant red loam and about 200ha of acidic sandy soil. Undulation and hills combined with cultivation farming previously led to significant erosion problems. Their three-year cropping phase starts with canola. Two consecutive wheat crops follow, with the second being undersown with lucerne. The lucerne phase generally lasts for three years before a return to cropping. Mr Young says their yields have improved since converting to no-till. Despite some difficult years, their wheat is averaging close to four tonnes a hectare and canola 1.98t/ha. Even in the worst of the recent seasons, 2002, they achieved 1.5t/ha of wheat and 1.0t/ha of canola. In the better years wheat has yielded 7.0t/ha and canola 3.0t/ha. Straw is always retained, with limited grazing allowed during the earlier part of the fallow. Grazing is generally avoided during wet periods if possible. The Youngs emphasise the importance of retaining good levels of crop residue for ground protection and efficient moisture conservation. Mr Young built his own no-till planter and sowing knife-points are spread across four bars to ensure plenty of clearance. Press wheels are an important part of the planter. Thirty-centimetre row spacing also helps improve clearance, with no detriment to yield. He has found the ‘Stubble Cruncher’, which he hires, ideal for breaking up straw and improving clearance and says that once no-till has been under way for a few years, stubble decomposition increases. Many mixed farmers baulk at no-till because of perceived soil compaction problems when changing from the pasture phase to cropping, especially on hard-setting soils. However, Mr Young has found his planter is robust enough to comfortably sow into all soils after a pasture phase. Press wheels help firm soil around the seed if it is a little loose. Even so, Mr Young is not so rigid in his no-till convictions that he will not cultivate under any circumstances. Because the quality of their soils has improved, if occasional cultivation is needed it will not suddenly reverse the gains made. So far, for example, the Youngs have yet to reliably remove lucerne without cultivation. However, Mr Young believes his knowledge of herbicides (products, rates, timing and conditions of application) and grazing management (continuous grazing in the last year weakens plants) is getting him close to avoiding the need to sometimes cultivate for lucerne removal. Another need for occasional cultivation is as an additional option to kill difficult weeds. For example, fleabane has been an issue, as for many north-west NSW farmers, and occasional cultivation (generally between the pasture and crop phase) has been useful. Wheat-after-wheat can be considered risky. However, the Youngs keep grass weeds out of the last year of the pasture phase, and with canola preceding wheat the risk of diseases like crown rot appear not to be great. Risk from diseases such as yellow leaf spot is minimised by only sowing the most tolerant varieties. Lucerne establishment under the last wheat crop, with high straw-residue levels and no-till sowing, has not been a problem. In sowing, seed drops slightly off-centre and just ahead of the press wheel. Straw mulch lasts well into the pasture phase and helps with soil friability and moisture infiltration, and probably helps reduce hoof compaction. Some scientists believe no-till combined with stubble retention can result in free-living soil bacteria fixing significant amounts of nitrogen. Mr Young carefully monitors soil fertility and crop nutrition, and certainly has been able to reduce fertiliser inputs since converting to no-till. Perhaps free-living nitrogen-fixing bacteria are part of the story. Greater recycling of nitrogen and the effectiveness of productive lucerne (which can fix 40 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare for each tonne of lucerne produced) are certainly major contributors to the higher nitrogen levels. He says that no-till combined with straw retention has so many benefits that it is worth persevering with issues described by many as too difficult. Despite 10 years of no-tilling, he continues to modify his operation to address difficulties that arise – the bottom line, he says, is the advantages are too great for him to even consider turning back to conventional farming. More information: Andrew Young, firstname.lastname@example.org No-till a mixed blessing Mixed livestock/crop farmers have been slow to adopt no-till, but Andrew and Meegan Young are finding it the most profitable way to run their enterprise SEPTEMBER -- OCTOBER 2006 GROUND COVER 23 Farming systems Northern NSW farmer Andrew Young: no-till's advantages are too great to consider turning back. 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