Ground Cover West : Ground Cover 050 June-July 2004 - West
Under a cloudless March sky, Colin Hutchinson with shovel in hand, was making the year's big decision -- when to sow the first crop. After digging a few holes he decided on a mid-April start, owing to the amount of preserved soil moisture that was clearly visible a few centimetres below the stubble-covered surface. Mr Hutchinson is in the vanguard of the no-till movement, still regarded as radical in some quarters, but gradually demonstrating the merits of an alternative production system. Colin and Libby Hutchinson farm 3000 hectares in a 325 millimetre rainfall zone near Yorkrakine, some 250 kilometres east of Perth. Over the past few decades this area has seen a lot of phases and experiments -- a region where some of the largest and most powerful farm machinery has been the norm. It is because there are still a lot of big tractors around, and a surprising number of sheep, that Mr Hutchinson's system, and thinking, stand out. For example, he has almost finished pulling out the fences that once restrained stock, and he has levelled all the contour banks because there is simply no water run-off anymore. The rain stays where it falls, even on steep slopes. This is why the factor that determines when his season starts is not late autumn or early winter rain, but how much moisture his soil is holding. Mr Hutchinson has been developing his no-till approach for some years after initially adopting minimum tillage in the mid-1980s. "It gives me planting opportunities that I just wouldn't have if I were still conventionally cultivating," he says. "Last year we were able to continue planting after our neighbours had stopped because we had enough moisture under the dry topsoil to get wheat well established." This preserved soil moisture, and an absence of stock, has opened the door to a longer season with a wider array of crop choices. "I actually need more silos to hold a greater range of seed, so I can take advantage of early rain with faba beans or if it is a later season I can sow chick peas, or later still I can opt for grain sorghum, sunflowers or maize as a summer crop. "It has reached the stage where I need at least three different seed storages for every paddock and it's not just a case of different markets. A summer crop is becoming increasingly important for weed control and softening the subsoil. By preparing for a summer crop you are hitting the winter weed seed bank. "These crops are also excellent for water table management because the roots go deep into the soil." The progression from minimum tillage to no-till, from wide sweep points to knife points, has transformed the farm's productivity, annual income expectations, and general appearance. "We used to have an enormous erosion problem caused by flash flooding. There were paddocks that were just a maze of trenches and gullies. They are all now covered with grass, and some of these areas are even becoming croppable," he says. "Basically, knife points working at six to eight inches deep don't create such a fragile surface and this stops the topsoil from slipping off the slopes. When you add full stubble retention to this we virtually have no water run-off at all. The water is staying on the slopes and not running into low-lying areas, causing waterlogging -- and ultimately salinity." Buoyed by the results of no-till so far, despite all the headaches and uncertainties that come with trying a new whole-of-farm system, Libby and Colin have now moved into tramlining and precision agriculture. "We use GPS self-steer with a variable-rate seeder and next year we will be moving into more of a zone management system -- sowing paddocks according to yield maps and data that we've built up over the past five years." The yield maps have provided some surprising, and valuable information. Paddocks that yielded well in 2001 were poorer in 2002. It seems that good crops leave much less moisture and nutrient for the following crop. Yield mapping warns where to allow for this. The whole seeding program is now a one-pass operation -- spraying, banding fertiliser and seeding on a bar with knife points. "We have moved completely to a tramlining system, with self-steering. We just lock in the GPS way points, and off the tractor goes. The operator hopefully stays alert enough to remember to turn at the end of the run." The machinery set-up comprises a Steiger tractor, air seeder, boom spray, fertiliser spreader and a Fastrac tractor. "The big change will come when we can introduce all the machinery onto three-metre tramlines. The cost of the self-steering and machinery modifications can be off-set by downsizing to smaller horsepower and equipment, which becomes logical as the soils become softer." To control weeds in the wider crop rows, Mr Hutchinson has introduced a hooded sprayer, which allows him to apply Spray.Seed®, Round Up® and Gramoxone® in the crop. "We've put rubber skirts around the hoods and these touch the ground for extra crop safety." There is also a significant economic spin- off. Spraying in rows is such a targeted application that his use of herbicides and fertilisers has been cut by two-thirds. Mr Hutchinson says that if he had to describe his farming system he would say it was a 'landcare driven' operation. "For a while some people thought we were crazy, but I think our results and the changes you can see happening, are starting to make more people take us seriously." For more information: Colin & Libby Hutchinson, email@example.com FARMING SYSTEMS 4 JUNE 2004 Australian Fluid Fertiliser Workshop 21-22 September 2004 Bringing together Australian and international researchers, farmers and industry to share knowledge and discuss limitations and possibilities for fluid fertiliser in Australia. This 2-day workshop will provide an opportunity to exchange Australian information and ideas internationally. For further information or to register as a participant contact: Kristi Wilson Ph: +61 8 8303 6706 firstname.lastname@example.org www.fluidfertilisers.com.au Colin Hutchinson shows the spray nozzles inside a hooded sprayer, and below, the sprayers in action. Too early for rain, but there's enough moisture in Colin Hutchinson's soil to start sowing early. Hooded sprayers with rubber skirts for extra crop safety. Reaping radical rewards BRAD COLLIS meets a WA farmer who defied convention and is getting results. "For a while some people thought we were crazy, but I think our results and the changes you can see happening, are starting to make more people take us seriously."
Ground Cover 051 August-September 2004 - West
Ground Cover 049 April-May 2004 - West