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Staying away from silver bullets

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Katanning farmer Barry Kowald has 20 years' experience using the DBS.

Katanning farmer Barry Kowald has 20 years' experience using the DBS.

With 20 years of experience using the DBS, Katanning farmer Barry Kowald is more convinced that ever he is on the right track. But it’s not so much a path of discovery. It’s more an understanding of what he maintains is “balance”. A cursory glance at agriculture is the clue. Despite the inexorable growth of technology, old problems remain. Some on a long list include hardpans or plough sole, water and wind erosion and “tight” paddocks that are characterised by water logging after rain events, poor-yielding crops or poor pasture growth. Throw in soil acidity, sodium levels and problems with plant-availability of subsoil nutrients and it is easy to come to the conclusion that farming is just too complicated and solutions too illusory. But working on balance and not chasing silver bullets is providing beneficial results for Barry and his wife Lyn and sons Sheldon and Trent. According to Barry, if there is a reliance on one factor, it is combining new and old farming techniques to increase farm production. The quest of course is to drought-proof the farm as much as possible while improving production – cropping, pasture and livestock. The Kowald’s farm 3640ha and have established a Keyline-based system of grade banks and drains on 80 per cent of the property, which means rain basically stays where it falls. “Much of our property now doesn’t sit well with up-and-back cropping,” Barry said. “We racetrack spray some and seeding is done up-and-back as much as possible, depending on each paddock and the presence of creeks, bush and rock heaps. Barry and his boys have also planted trees below the contour banks, three to four rows wide, including understorey. These are now the paddock boundaries. “The basic aim is to control surface and seepage water and wind erosion, because the farm is mainly high country,” Barry said. The trees also form shelterbelts to protect stock (reduces the chill factor) and crops (wind erosion). The Kowald’s also have a 9500 self-replacing Merino flock combined with Prime Lamb production, further emphasising the need for balance to maintain healthy pastures as well as crops. It’s about analysing short term opportunities and any adverse affect they might have on long term goals For example, cropping area each year depends on the season, commodity prices and a lot of variables where value judgements have to be made. The Kowald’s currently use a two-bin tow behind Multistream linked to a 35 foot (10.6m) DBS. “Sometimes our cropping area is increased slightly because we might push canola and that won’t be just because of price,” Barry said. “Generally it will also be about its availability in rotation.” At the moment the schedule is two crops (canola then barley), two pastures along with a four year cropping rotation comprising canola, barley, lupins, barley or oats. Wheat is not grown mainly because there is better sheep feed after barley. “Those rotations provide a big advantage for us to manipulate pastures and keep the weed seed banks to manageable levels,” Barry said. “The sheep are as important as the chemicals and currently don’t have the need for a chaff cart or windrow burning.” Before his entry into the DBS world of cultivation-below-precision seed placement, Barry had used a combine seeder and was on a year-in, two year-out rotation. We weren’t prepared to burn stubbles because it takes too much away from the soil and it’s another job which leaves soil prone to erosion “Now we have more flexibility at sowing, I can handle stubbles and I’m also building the soil structure.” Barry also believes the DBS is a perfect contour-maker in its own right as moisture is harvested in the seeding row and stays where it falls. This is a big contributor to soil aeration as the cultivation below the seed by the DBS creates more pore space for plant roots to be able to adequately seek moisture and nutrients. Additionally Barry says the air and moisture with calcium increases soil PH. Without getting too technical Barry says the production of healthy plants and healthy pastures is evidence of an oxidation process occurring in the soil aiding plant growth. He points to more friable soil since he adopted the DBS and while a plough sole still persists between 75mm and 100mm (3-4in), the deeper working of the DBS breaks through it. “It has taken a few years to get to that friable state and our organic matter has increased significantly from 1.5 to two to three over the past 20 years,” Barry said. “The country we are working has been farmed for 100 years and like salt you can never completely reverse what conventional cultivation caused. “But the DBS has allowed us to get better root development that has accelerated our organic matter levels.” Interestingly, Barry also reports increased clover growth. “We’re finding more clover than we’ve ever seen with natural regeneration of hard-seed varieties and we can have dominant clover pastures after two years of the cropping phase, so that’s all free nitrogen,” he said. Barry sees the clover growth as a side benefit of the deeper working of the DBS.

Publish Date: 
Thursday, January 5, 2017