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Changing paradigm on NSW farm

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This is the pith of the story of soil renovation. These two sods were dug up from two parts of a paddock on Peter Alexander’s farm at Glen Innes in New South Wales.  The sod on the left was dug up in an unrenovated part of the paddock and is like a brick, with minimal root penetration. The sod on the right was dug up from a DBS-renovated strip and shows soil structure, with plenty of rooting activity and obvious ‘pathways’ for water and air infiltration – the key to healthy plant growth.

This is the pith of the story of soil renovation. These two sods were dug up from two parts of a paddock on Peter Alexander’s farm at Glen Innes in New South Wales. The sod on the left was dug up in an unrenovated part of the paddock and is like a brick, with minimal root penetration. The sod on the right was dug up from a DBS-renovated strip and shows soil structure, with plenty of rooting activity and obvious ‘pathways’ for water and air infiltration – the key to healthy plant growth.

Ausplow Managing Director John Ryan (eft) and Peter Alexander busy digging holes to check soil structure in one of the paddocks Peter is trialling the DBS.

Ausplow Managing Director John Ryan (eft) and Peter Alexander busy digging holes to check soil structure in one of the paddocks Peter is trialling the DBS.

By JOHN RYAN AM
The Chinese proverb, ‘The ox is slow, but the earth is patient’, bears some thought.
In the agricultural industry, despite the rapid advance of technology over the past 60 years, there remains a few “oxen”, which more accurately, could be described as “conventional” farming.
In context, it’s about faithfully sticking to what we know, whether that embraces one-pass crop establishment methods, deep ripping, mouldboard plough or spading, or a mixture of all.
We also know the importance of spraying out weeds to conserve moisture for our crops and we have, generally speaking, an integrated weed management plan for our farm.
To an extent we can be satisfied that our “conventional” farming methods are working.
But when I spoke recently with New South Wales farmers Peter and Ros Alexander (‘Whinstanes’, Glen Ines), they are witnessing a changing paradigm.
Peter and Ros farm 3700 acres (1497ha) in picturesque high country that belies major problems – weeds and compacted soils.
Faced with an economic reality of increasing his 250 breeders cow herd, Peter instinctively knows he has to increase carrying capacity, which in turn means improving pasture growth.
At the moment, as we discussed in the June Ausfacts, he endures so-called ‘green drought’ during which predominately perennial ryegrass roots languish in the topsoil, surrounded by moisture unable to infiltrate deeper in a compacted zone (enhancing water-logging).
In summer, as the ground dries out, the crop stays green, growth is stunted and is of no nutritional value for his cows, and crops rarely respond to urea treatments.
The conventional method of establishing perennial ryegrass is to use a disc seeder operating on seven-inch (17.5cm) row spacings and seeding shallow, with the idea to choke out weeds.
“But our conventional methods aren’t working,” Peter said. “We try to keep on top of weeds like carpet grass and rat’s tail fescue, but it’s a major problem.
“That’s why I decided to trial the DBS with the Pro D tool system this year, and we’re now convinced it’s the right tool to improve our pastures.”
Peter used our DBS trial planter which provides a working width of 12 feet (3.6m) with two rows of modules, equipped with paired rows spaced at 10 inches (25cm). It carries a hopper with an option for liquid delivery.
“We trialled the DBS in two paddocks and there are some interesting observations.
“With the paired rows, we can suppress weed growth but more importantly it means we don’t have to spray the weeds out and kill established grass at the same time.
“Conventionally we would be killing 50 to 60 per cent of good established grass when we sprayed paddocks out, which to me is a waste and it also destroys the root systems of those plants.
“We still spray but it’s a more targeted program where appropriate, rather than a blanket approach.
“And in the DBS trial strips we’re getting quicker re-growth by not spraying, so feed is available quicker.
“My aim is to develop permanent pasture with a mix of ryegrass and clover and we’ll trial things like brassicas and other deep-rooted plant varieties to put a bit of structure into the soils.”
In one 50 acre (20ha) paddock, Peter established a trial of ryegrass, clover and brassica and it was readily apparent he did not work the DBS deep enough, because of classic L-shaped roots hitting a hardpan (A higher horsepower tractor has since solved that problem).
In another 40 acre (16ha) paddock infested with carpet grass, Peter said the DBS trial demonstrated how opening up the soil and allowing air and moisture to penetrate, resulted in robust clover growth choking out carpet grass, which was of no feed value.
His strategy in this paddock will be to selectively spray areas of non-clover growth, sow ryegrass and in the third year establish a perennial pasture.
“Basically, I would like to use the DBS firstly to build-up poor-performing areas and then continually improve better performing areas,” he said.
What excites Peter is the possibilities.
“We’re already looking at soil microbes and how best to use them to produce healthier and more palatable pastures,” he said. “That’s why a part of the DBS trials involves liquid nutrients like worm castings and ameliorants like Calbud to elevate soil pH.
“The trials will also give us an idea of how we’re improving the structure of the soil which produces many benefits.
“It’s interesting in the trial strips where we have used the DBS, because in October the clovers and rye were still regenerating after a very dry few months through July to September.
“Where we didn’t go with the DBS, the paddocks are bare and brown so it’s a good indication of the ripping effect of the DBS to access the moisture that’s obviously still there.
“The brassica plants in October were being eaten to the crown by the cows and were still regenerating, so if we get good rain, we’ll get more prolific growth.”
(Since the time of writing, Peter reports rainfall figures of 117mm on his property.
“The plant growth on the DBS strips are heathier and more palatable, the established root systems have captured all the available moisture compared with the rest of the paddocks, where runoff is a problem,” he said).
The trials have convinced Peter he is on the right pathway and has ordered a 12-foot model with the option of wings to increase the working width to 14 feet (4.2m).
It will carry the Pro-D tool system with paired rows and it will have the option of liquid and granular delivery. And Peter also has opted for leading coulters which are vital for cutting root matter and stopping the soil from “boiling up” and leaving a lumpy and cloddy top-soil.
He already is expanding his trial program to include sudax (to cut for round bale silage) and establish dolichus lab lab, a deep-rooted legume, which also will greatly enhance soil structure.
Part of his rotation program in permanent pasture, also will include triticale and soybeans (for silage) along with “shotgun mixes” to fill any gaps.
“With the DBS, we’ll also be able to renovate pastures every two years with the option to seed or introduce liquid calcium, if required,” he said.
It’s enlightening to remember that the father of the seed drill, Jethro Tull, said in 1701, that air and moisture were imperatives to reach the roots of crop plants, hence his invention to plant seeds at regular intervals, at the right depth and cover them with earth.
If the “oxen” could speak, their words might well be: Old is new again.

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Monday, April 30, 2018