Low profile magic bullets in soil profile

category: 
Soils
Former CSIRO scientist and microbiologist Dr Margaret Roper says her research shows current soil amelioration cultivation practices are harming the soil microbial population responsible for building fertile soils.

Former CSIRO scientist and microbiologist Dr Margaret Roper says her research shows current soil amelioration cultivation practices are harming the soil microbial population responsible for building fertile soils.

Stubble removed and cultivated prior to seeding. The dye shows the pathways for water movement have been destroyed. Photo: Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Stubble removed and cultivated prior to seeding. The dye shows the pathways for water movement have been destroyed. Photo: Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Blue dye shows infiltration down new and old rows in a zero-tilled row. Photo: Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Blue dye shows infiltration down new and old rows in a zero-tilled row. Photo: Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

By KEN WILSON
THERE are no magic bullets.
You have probably heard that ad nauseum in agriculture while encountering such problems as chemical resistance, low soil pH, plant diseases, et al.
As far as you’re concerned it’s a truism, based on self evidence.
But things are changing to a point where CSIRO and GRDC scientists and researchers are pointing to neglected ‘magic bullets’ that exist literally under your feet.
You know them as bacteria, fungi and small soil animals, otherwise referred to as soil microorganisms or soil microbes, which basically are the building blocks of fertile soil.
There are between one and two tonnes a hectare of microbes in the top soil with 70 per cent in the top 10 centimetres, providing more than 10 billion microbes in a kilogram of soil with literally kilometres of fungal hyphae.
The hyphae spreads like a network to capture nutrients and in a highly complex symbiotic relationship, provides these nutrients to plant roots while accessing food in the form of exudates from the roots.
A classic visual of this process is the ‘dreadlock’ roots you find on healthy plants.
What science is now showing, through trial research, is a better way to grow crops - better than what might be regarded as the game-changer for broadacre farming in the 1990s when no-till became the norm.
And better than the evolution from deep ripping (dating back to the late 1960s) to wholesale soil amelioration techniques which has seen ‘rediscoveries’ of the mouldboard plough and the one-way plough.
Today’s focus is on eliminating non-wetting soils, where possible to invert and bury weed seeds (mouldboarding) and mixing lime, clay and gypsum to elevate soil pH (at least in the top 10-20cm of the soil) and to create more water-holding capacity, through an improvement in soil structure.
Ironically, these cultivation solutions, which have given economic responses and on face value appear to be sensible management practices, also promote problems, ie, chiefly, upsetting or destroying fungal hyphae networks.
There is conjecture about how soil microbes and organic matter are affected by technology.
But former CSIRO scientist and microbiologist Dr Margaret Roper is in no doubt, on the back of more than a decade of trials, that cultivation practices can reduce organic matter and water-holding capacity in WA’s water-repellent sandy soils.
“We have consistently found in trials over the years that cultivation (and stubble burning) will result in the loss of organic matter in the soil,” Dr Roper said.
In 2008, Dr Roper was involved in a trial program at Munglinup and after four years of measuring organic matter in ‘district practice’ plots (cultivation and stubble burning), a noticeable depletion in organic matter levels occurred in the top soil down to 10cm, compared with no-till plots.
“It happened quite quickly from 2009 onwards,” Dr Roper said. “It was so consistent that we stopped the burning in 2011 but we retained the plots in our overall trial program.
“From 2012 to 2017 we returned all plots to no-till and stubble retention.
“After six years, the plots that were previously burned and cultivated in the first four years of the trial, showed little or no recovery in terms of organic matter levels, water-holding capacity and crop yields, when compared with the plots which had been under no-till and stubble-retention from the beginning of the trial.
“It can really take a long time for the soil to recover from burning stubbles.”
According to Dr Roper, there is world research that shows if you create an environment that increases organic matter, you can achieve a significant increase in available water-holding capacity, and this can be more pronounced in sandier soils.
The problem is getting to that level of soil fertility. It’s not a quick fix.
Understanding how long it takes to restore soil to its optimum fertility remains elusive.
And in an economic environment where every paddock must make money, it’s problematic that any paradigm shift, alluded to here, will occur, particularly with farmers cropping in sandy soils.
But Dr Roper points to trials involving near-row sowing in South Australia and WA which have shown promise.
“At this stage it remains a hypothesis because of the lack of long term trial data,” Dr Roper said. “But initial work I have been involved with for more than a decade does point to a range of benefits.
“Near-row sowing implies establishing crops close to the previous year’s crop rows where there is a high likelihood of moisture, which new roots gravitate towards and establish in old root pathways.
‘It is in this environment, where moisture is present, that beneficial soil microbes populate, including wax-degrading bacteria (eliminating non-wetting).
“And compared to the non-wetting inter-row, the microbial population is far greater than that in the inter-row by a factor of 10.”
It follows that a soil that hasn’t been dried out by cultivation, has the potential to build carbon levels to create more water-holding capacity and increase soil fertility leading to healthier crop plants with high yield potential.
The obvious question is how sustainable is planting in virtually the same row year after year, which can induce plant root diseases.
According to Dr Roper the sheer population of beneficial microbes can play a positive role in suppressing diseases, with trials already showing suppression of crown root rot in cereals.
And the bonus of maintaining the same planting rows, creates a hostile, dry (from non-wetting) inter-row where weeds will struggle to grow.
Additionally, with growing soil fertility implying structured soil, there may be no need for the costly type of deep ripping, spading or mouldboarding.
“I believe near-row crop establishment is the closest thing yet to sustainability,” Dr Roper said.
And she believes there is more to come from research efforts, particularly related to in-furrow liquid nutrient applications.
Currently Dr Roper is working with Ausplow Farming Systems on a trial program at Quairading specifically assessing the attributes of in-furrow liquid nutrient applications.
“We could be on the cusp of something really exciting but it is still early days,” she said.
(Published in Farm Weekly, September 3, 2020 and used with kind permission).

An important pathway to progressing soil structure

category: 
Soils
A specially-designed Ausplow DBS precision planter being used in New South Wales. The DBS is a Clayton's version of deep ripping and a defacto Keyline system, encouraging rain to stay where it falls.

A specially-designed Ausplow DBS precision planter being used in New South Wales. The DBS is a Clayton's version of deep ripping and a defacto Keyline system, encouraging rain to stay where it falls.

(PART TWO OF A THREE PART SERIES)
By JOHN RYAN AM
I often wonder what my uncle Percival Yeomans (PA), an engineer and farmer in New South Wales, would say about modern day crop establishment practices.
He was, of course, the inventor of the Keyline contour system which basically was designed to retain moisture where it fell, eliminating washaways and water erosion on slopes and reducing water-logging in the valleys.
It came after he had been experimenting with various tillage techniques for pasture establishment and regeneration in the early 1950s.
Initial attempts started with a chisel plough designed by Texan farmer Graham Hoeme and named after him.
But Percival soon found the two inch wide shanks tore a lot of roots out of the soil while requiring a lot of horsepower to pull it.
Further investigation led him to develop his own plough, called the Yeomans plough, which was used for keyline plowing when he established ‘The Keyline Plan’ in 1954.
It was essentially designed, with thinner shanks, to lift and aerate the soil while limiting soil disturbance to minimize oxidation of organic matter.
For many years the Yeomans plough became the tillage tool for deep tilling and pasture renovation but the lack of high horsepower tractors limited its ability to work deep in the subsoil.
Further development was based on work in Texas with a ‘Lubbock Vibrating Plow’ which was designed with a vibration mechanism, driven off the tractor PTO.
It featured a dual eccentric counter-balanced rotor system which acted as a unbalanced flywheel.
As the flywheel turned, it caused the entire implement to vibrate and the machine was made out of angle iron and bolted together rather than welded to withstand the vibrations.
Its most important feature was that it broke up hardpans, yet left the soil relatively undisturbed.
In the early 1970s I began developing a similar machine which was later called the Shakeaerator, which was in commercial production between 1974 and 1979 and was manufactured under licence in England.
It was able to penetrate deeper into the subsoil and used less horsepower than the chisel plough which was restricted by a spring-loaded tine and a C-shank, which increased horsepower requirements.
The Shakeaerator worked better in dry, hard soils which resulted in good fracturing but very high wearing parts.
It led to farmers reverting to the chisel plough again with a lot of work often done after rainfall events.
This led to soil collapsing, causing re-compaction and losing soil aggregation or structure which plant roots couldn’t penetrate to obtain deeper moisture and nutrients.
It was found that ripping into established pasture, or after seeding with roots established, maintained soil aggregation, allowing good infiltration of moisture and easier access for plant roots to grow deeper in the subsoil.
My experience was that ripping at seeding allowed plants to develop roots quicker which reduced soil collapsing to maintain good infiltration of moisture and air.
It was the right idea but it proved difficult to obtain accurate seed placement as seed often fell into the deeper furrow created by the digging blades.
That’s when I started to develop the DBS no-till system, which in effect, is a Clayton’s version of deep tilling – loosening the soil, aerating it, providing moisture infiltration and achieving accurate seed placement.
It also is a defacto Keyline system encouraging rain to stay where it falls – how many DBS owners have trouble filling their dams?
So now we’ve arrived at our next development. We’ll continue the story in our September edition of Ausfacts.

Patience the big message to building healthy soils

category: 
Soils

Glenn Innes, NSW, farmers Greg and Sally Chappell are reaping the rewards of a patient endeavour to improve soil health on their Shannon Vale property.
But the latest message from the couple, who also run Dulverton Angus stud, is that they’ve got more to do.
The couple oversee 500 cows on their home property with 150 bulls, with a further 400 cows on a neighbouring lease block.
The Shannon Vale property totals 3600 acres (1450ha) and when the Chappells bought property in 2001, it was immediately apparent a strategy was needed to overcome a long history of degraded and compacted soils.
With an annual rainfall of 875mm (35in), it was imperative to take advantage of the available moisture and so began a program to improve the soil’s water-holding capacity by building up carbon levels.
Weeds were the main problem, particularly African lovegrass, which had negligible nutritional value yet dominated over more palatable pasture species.
“Since about 2008, we have been re-building the soil by increasing organic and carbon content, through things like mulching weeds, manuring and using a liquid potassium mix, based on plant analysis,” Greg said.
The herd becomes the mechanised process of smashing up weed ‘stubble’, including lovegrass, bringing it in contact with the soil where biological processes start material decomposition.
“It’s a long-term process but we’re seeing encouraging signs from our measuring sites,” Greg said.
“When we started we were below one for organic carbon and now it’s around 3.5.
“With soil pH it’s gone between 4.4 and 5.7 to 5.9 and 7.1.
“And now, none of the sites are measuring below 5.7.”
His explanation for the change, after a period of only four years, was simple: “We stopped single super (too much acid) and started manuring.
In 2017 Greg established 84 acres (34ha) of pasture with an Ausplow DBS trial planter, using a balanced granular formula to plant ryegrass and Lucerne.
Greg was impressed with the result, particularly the under-seed cultivation and shattering of the subsoil, breaking up soil hardpans and encouraging water infiltration.
On the pasture renovation side, Greg says by using the DBS and Multistream they are accelerating the process he and Sally started, because, “we didn’t factor in this type of deep tillage in the beginning”.
“And we’ve introduced dung beetles to get those cow pads into the soil to bring up the carbon levels and we’re creating a worm environment,” he said.
Greg has also used the DBS planter to establish forage sorghum and cow pea (for N in the silage), which is used as silage feed for the cattle.
Last year he bought a 15-foot (4.5m) DBS on 10-inch (25cm) spacings with a mounted Multistream on the bar and liquid tanks on the drawbar to provide him with the capacity to switch between granular applications and liquids, including a new Ausplow formulation.
Now he is looking at replacing the granular fertiliser box with a liquid tank to go “full liquid”.
“The liquids give us a chance to move forward with a balanced nutrition package being introduced into the soil, providing more benefit for high performance pasture growth,” he said.
“The liquids are doing a far superior job for us with quicker germinations and plant growth that outcompetes the weeds.
“For us, the DBS is our pasture renovator and it is working really well.
“Ausplow also added twin Turbo discs out front to cut the plant roots without disturbing the main tap root.
“The discs are the duck’s nuts especially in lovegrass which is very clumpy.
“We’re sowing oats into it with the idea of busting up the subsoil to get a more permanent pasture with a diverse plant mix.
“I like the DBS because it is a one-pass operation.
“You’re keeping soil intact in these grey loams and building healthy soils because of the minimal disturbance and the root build-up which creates air spaces and pathways for moisture.
“It will take time but we’re retaining organic carbon and building moisture-holding soil.
“This in turn will improve the cation exchange capacity (CEC) which in our sandy soils is low, so we have no binding structure.
“By improving organic matter and holding water in the root zone, we achieve a higher CEC, which influences the soil’s ability to hold onto essential nutrients and make them available to plants.”

Where are the new strategies?

category: 
Soils
While the majority of current research focuses on soil amelioration techniques, Ausplow's fopcus is on a sustainable approach, through our 'pot plant' crop establishment techniques.

While the majority of current research focuses on soil amelioration techniques, Ausplow's fopcus is on a sustainable approach, through our 'pot plant' crop establishment techniques.

(PART ONE OF A THREE-PART SERIES)

By JOHN RYAN AM
It has been an interesting few months for me as I have reviewed a lot of stories relating to increasing crop yields.
Soil amelioration is obviously the number one topic at the moment whether it’s using mouldboard ploughs, one-way ploughs, spading, offset discs or deep ripping, to work clay, dolomite, lime, gypsum or a number of other ameliorants and topsoil, into the subsoil.
There can be various strategies for ameliorating soil, from overcoming non-wetting, to burying herbicide-resistant weed seeds, to increasing topsoil pH, etc.
And the hope is that whichever strategy you use, you’re improving the soil and therefore on your way to increasing crop yields, with the promise, mainly from researchers, of residual benefits that could last up to five years or more.
A lot of the focus on amelioration is on Western Australia and South Australia’s non-wetting, sandy soils, with the main methods used in SA being delving and clay spreading.
In other parts of the national Wheatbelt, trials have been established by various researchers exploring the use of deep ripping to apply soil amendments such as a leguminous green manure, chicken litter, cereal stubble and gypsum.
Researchers are also monitoring 15 existing long-term trials to help gauge the residual effects, especially the cost-benefits, of soil amelioration in South Australia, Victoria, NSW and Tasmania.
So as we progress through 2020 it is fairly evident researchers are all rowing the same way.
Which leads us to the direction we are taking.
We’ve actually spelt it out in previous editions of Ausfacts that our focus is a sustainable approach, through our ‘pot plant’ crop establishment techniques, with the emphasis on improving soil while making money.
And we’ve been encouraged by our initial trials results from last year at our Quairading research and development centre and by the work being done by our R&D coordinator Dr Margaret Roper (More of her research is published in our What’s New section of our Web page, October 26, 2019).
Margaret and a team of CSIRO researchers have recently released a paper based on 12 years research which is worth reading January 18, 2020).
Again you can access the information on our Web page in our ‘What’s New’ section.
The story has the heading: Is cultivation really the bogeyman of crop establishment?
In our next Ausfacts issue I’ll explain how this story ties in with what we are doing with the DBS.
I would also encourage you to ask your local DBS dealer for a free copy of our book called The Genius of Farmers.
In the meantime, if you are interested in setting up a few trials this year similar to what we are doing at Quairading (see the January edition of Ausfacts), please feel free to contact me at john@ausplowcom.au

Cultivation the bogeyman of crop establishment

category: 
Soils
Cranbrook farmer Theo Cunningham (left) digs into an old root pathway to examine subsoil. He is being watched by Ausplow research and development coordinator Dr Margaret Roper and Ausplow managing director John Ryan AM.

Cranbrook farmer Theo Cunningham (left) digs into an old root pathway to examine subsoil. He is being watched by Ausplow research and development coordinator Dr Margaret Roper and Ausplow managing director John Ryan AM.

Stubble removed and cultivated prior to seeding. The dye shows the pathways for water movement have been destroyed. Photo courtesy Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Stubble removed and cultivated prior to seeding. The dye shows the pathways for water movement have been destroyed. Photo courtesy Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Blue dye shows infiltration down new and old rows in a zero-tilled row. Photo courtesy Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Blue dye shows infiltration down new and old rows in a zero-tilled row. Photo courtesy Margaret Roper and Phil Ward, CSIRO.

Former CSIRO scientist and microbiologist Dr Margaret Roper … cultivation can reduce organic matter and water-holding capacity in the soil.

Former CSIRO scientist and microbiologist Dr Margaret Roper … cultivation can reduce organic matter and water-holding capacity in the soil.

By KEN WILSON
THERE is no denying that agriculture has experienced a series of paradigm shifts over the past 70 years.
And as technology wraps itself tightly around the industry, more attention is being paid to technological changes such as variable rate product applications, robotic farming, et al.
Technology also has been employed in the form of mouldboard ploughs, spaders and deep rippers to ameliorate WA’s soil water repellency and bury weed seeds - practices we have seen ramped up over the past decade.
But for all that focus, aimed at producing higher-yielding crops (and in some cases pastures), there remains a missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle that is farming.
The missing piece is often referred to but it remains out of sight and mostly, out of mind.
I’m of course referring to bacteria, fungi and small soil animals, otherwise referred to as soil microorganisms or soil microbes. Soil microorganisms are many and diverse and it is estimated there are more than 10 billion microbes in a kilogram of soil.
Soil microbes process organic materials of plant and animal origin into soil organic matter and contribute to soil structure.
They decompose pollutants, are responsible for biological control (including controlling plant diseases), and cycle nutrients in the soil for plant and microbial use.
Soil organic matter significantly increases the water-holding capacity of soils, particularly sandy soils.
There is conjecture, however, about how soil microbes and organic matter are affected by technology but former CSIRO scientist and microbiologist Dr Margaret Roper is in no doubt, on the back of more than a decade of trials: cultivation practices can reduce organic matter and water-holding capacity in our water-repellent sandy soils.
“We have consistently found in trials over the years that cultivation (and stubble burning) will result in the loss of organic matter in the soil,” Dr Roper said.
In the 1980s ‘district practice’ was to burn stubbles before cultivating and seeding, but after a series of severe wind erosion events, no-till with stubble retention was gradually adopted.
In 2008, Dr Roper was involved in a trial program at Munglinup and after four years of measuring organic matter in ‘district practice’ plots, a noticeable depletion in organic matter levels occurred in the top soil down to ten centimetres, compared with no-till plots.
“It happened quite quickly from 2009 onwards,” Dr Roper said. “It was so consistent that we stopped the burning in 2011 but we retained the plots in our overall trial program.
“From 2012 to 2017 we returned all plots to no-till and stubble retention.
“After six years, the plots that were previously burned and cultivated in the first four years of the trial, showed little or no recovery in terms of organic matter levels, water-holding capacity and crop yields when compared with the plots which had been under no-till and stubble-retention from the beginning of the trial.
“It can really take a long time for the soil to recover from burning stubbles.”
Interestingly when the Munglinup trials started, the soil water content was always higher in the more repellent no-till and stubble retained plots than the cultivated and burned plots.
“In the cultivated and burnt treatment, with least repellence water infiltration was less,” Dr Roper said.
“This went against conventional thinking because the more soil organic matter the more waxes are present to make soil more water-repellent.
“Waxes are produced by plants to protect them from loss of water. When plant material decays, waxes are released and coat sand particles and cause repellency.”
The research team of Dr Roper and colleagues Phil Ward, Ramona Kerr and Shayne Micin, discovered, through dye tests, that no-till had preserved the old plant root pathways which allowed water to travel beyond the water-repellent top layer of the root zone.
“It was easy to see in the cultivated and burnt plots that the dye couldn’t penetrate with root pathways destroyed,” Dr Roper said.
Dr Roper and her team continued research into water repellence - and diseases - and in 2011 organised trials involving on-row and inter-row crop establishment in a no-till stubble retention system.
“We had similar results with crops sown into the row and moisture infiltrating old root pathways,” Dr Roper said. “On the inter-row, it was bone dry, even after significant rain.”
This research work has set up the tantalising prospect of establishing crops every year near the previous year’s plant rows (near-row sowing) to continue to build organic matter and create, eventually, paddocks with the capacity to hold water in the topsoil.
Such an effect would mean the proliferation of beneficial bacteria and a healthy soil environment to enhance soil structure and microbial functions.
According to Dr Roper, there is research around the world that shows if you create an environment that increases organic matter, you can achieve a significant increase in available water-holding capacity, and this can be more pronounced in sandier soils.
The problem is getting to that level of soil fertility. It’s not a quick fix.
Having said that, Dr Roper says the trial results at Munglinup showed that improvements in water infiltration are rapid (less than three years) after transitioning from cultivation to no-till due to early development and preservation of new root pathways for water flow, that by-passes repellent surface soil layers.
Conversely, rebuilding soil organic matter and associated water-holding capacity after transitioning from stubble burning to stubble retention, is much slower (greater than six years) and so is the accumulation of crop residue ground cover that protects soils from temperature extremes and conserves soil water.
Understanding how long it takes to restore soil to its optimum fertility remains elusive.
And in an economic environment where every paddock must make money, it’s problematic that any paradigm shift, alluded to here, will occur, particularly with farmers cropping in sandy soils.
But while soil amelioration techniques maybe working, it could be argued that the cost of these techniques warrants a closer look at the cheaper technique of near-row sowing.
Naysayers will quickly point out the disease build-up associated with such a method, but Dr Roper says there is no evidence of diseases associated with the Munglinup trials.
“It (disease) certainly needs a proper evaluation but our trials show, in the presence of moisture in the old root pathways, beneficial bacteria can flourish. Some of these bacteria have the potential to reduce root diseases.
Whether the Munglinup trials will gain broader traction with farmers remains to be seen.
But if the goal is to produce more from existing land holdings, it is arguable that maintaining methods that preserve organic matter and soil structure, are the right way to go.
(Story courtesy FARM WEEKLY).

Growing vegies 'same as growing crops'

category: 
Soils
South Fremantle market gardener Lori Sumich is totally convinced deep tillage is a required management practice growing vegetables.

South Fremantle market gardener Lori Sumich is totally convinced deep tillage is a required management practice growing vegetables.

There’s not much difference between growing vegetables and broadacre food crops.
That’s the opinion of well-known market gardener Lori Sumich who has more than 50 years’ experience in the industry.
Arguably you’ve got more control of moisture in a vegetable bed than in moisture-limited areas of the Australia’s wheatbelt, but essentially, it’s a story of air, moisture and nutrients.
And that story is where you find the origin of the Deep Blade System (DBS).
Lori has known Ausplow managing director and DBS inventor John Ryan since the 1980s and John convinced Lori that deep ripping was the way to go, along with deep banding of fertiliser.
His relationship with Lori grew after a trip to Italy to attend an agricultural conference with the late Peter Mirco, a machinery dealer specialising in market gardening, who also was a good friend of John’s.
When John moved to WA after a successful career, including designing the popular Agrowplow - 4000 units were sold between 1977 and 1985.
According to Lori, he and John talked the whole way to Italy about plant establishment and on their return
A somewhat sceptical Lori had to see it with his own eyes – massive yield increases in his lettuce crops – to be convinced, and since then deep ripping has become a management practice.
“We made several prototype rippers to get it right so we could place the fertiliser about three or four inches (75-100mm) underneath the seed.” Lori said. “The deep ripper carried fertiliser and seed hoppers with fertiliser introduced behind the ripping tines.
“Growing onions at Manjimup and Pemberton, you had to drill the super right below the seed and it had to be precise because if the roots didn’t hit it you didn’t get good plant growth,” Lori said.
“In those heavier soils down south the P can be tied up, not like the sandy soils up here where it is more soluble.
“The sort of precision we chase is what is happening with broadacre growers.”
For the majority of the 25 years Lori has been deep ripping, he has used a three-point linkage Agrowplow.
“John made it for me to suit vegie growing,” he said. “It was a five-shank machine and it did the job.
“Now I’ve got a three-row Ausplow model which is three-point linkage with four shanks and leading coulters.
“It’s 1.93 metres wide which is the bed width and it is specifically used for ripping after planting and for renovating empty beds and to improve drainage on low-lying areas.
“We generally rip between 16 and 18 inches (400-450mm) with the leading coulters opening up the ground to make it easier for the shank and the shoe.”
(Ausplow engineering manager Carol Erasmus is overseeing research and development on Lori’s Mandogalup property looking to improve shank and blade wear and overall digging efficiency).
Lori no longer employs deep banding of fertilisers, having switched to fertigation to introduce N,P,K, calcium and other trace elements.
After a crop, seed bed preparation starts for the new crop, with rotary hoeing before seeding.
Then ripping starts, typically two weeks after lettuce plantings and three weeks after celery plantings.
“Ripping puts oxygen in the soil and allows better moisture penetration for roots to access,” Lori said. “It’s very evident that breaking up the soil is beneficial to plants because we can see healthy plants growing and giving us better yields.”
And importantly for Lori, his produce has to taste good.
“If it tastes good you know it has got the right salts from the N,P,K and magnesium,” he said. “If there’s no taste, the plant is hungry for nutrients.”
Using fertigation, Lori has specific ‘nutrient blends’ for different crops and again he says it is no different to broadacre nutrient applications.
“In broadacre you would set up your nutrient requirements based on what you think you’re crops will yield,” he said.
“We do the same, only where you might plan for a three-tonne wheat crop, we plan for between 50 and 100 tonnes a hectare for our cabbages, carrots, potatoes, etc.
“It’s just working out nutrient units per volume and according to soil type.
“For example, if we know our celery will go 80 tonnes, we might out on 400kg/ha of potash in the heavier soils and it will stay there.
“But in our lighter soils we wouldn’t do that because it’ll leach so we put it on as-required by monitoring the crops.”
According to Lori, if he became a broadacre farmer, his preference would be to grow crops with centre pivots to ensure moisture management.
And for crop establishment?
“DBS is the right way,” he said.

The slow 'ox' is gathering pace

category: 
Soils
South Fremantle market gardenerLori Sumich with Ausplow's Engineering Manager Carol Erasmus  discussing deep tillage.

South Fremantle market gardenerLori Sumich with Ausplow's Engineering Manager Carol Erasmus discussing deep tillage.

Healthy celery roots are evident int his high-yielding letrtuce bed which was deep tilled after the crop was sown.

Healthy celery roots are evident int his high-yielding letrtuce bed which was deep tilled after the crop was sown.

By JOHN RYAN AM
Chinese philosopher and teacher Confucius had it right in 400BC when he famously declared: “The ox is slow but the earth is patient”.
It’s a fairly accurate analogy of agriculture, which in broadacre terms in Australia, only came of age, so to speak, a little over 60 years ago.
The ox, in this case, is the universal farmer, who only knew what had been passed onto him or her from previous generations, hence the oft-quoted, “it’s the way I was taught”.
But there also were oxen, the early ‘tractors’ of agriculture, allowing a farmer to walk behind with a wooden plough and later a cast iron wheeled mouldboard plough invented by the Romans, horse-drawn versions of which persisted in Europe into the early 20th century.
Interestingly, the Chinese discovered that so-called mouldboarding turned over the upper layer of the soil, bringing fresh nutrients to the surface while burying weeds and the remains of previous crops and allowing them to break down.
Sound familiar?
The age of mechanics in the early 1930s accelerated this practice (of mouldboarding) and brought heartache to farmers experiencing droughts in the Midwest and southern Great Plains of the US (Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico) and the Canadian Prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta).
Massive dust storms and severe drought saw the period from 1930 to 1940 to become known as the ‘Dust Bowl’ years in those States.
In Australia, our short history of broadacre and dryland farming is well documented in terms of soil degradation, caused by naturally poor soil structure, tillage and over-grazing.
And despite the evolution away from work-up and work-back, to direct drill and no-till, problems persist, including wind erosion, acidity, salinity and perhaps the biggest problem of them all, nutrient imbalance.
The point of this historical treatise is to remind DBS owners they are in possession of a tool to slowly assist our patient Mother Earth.
And it may surprise some owners to know that the genesis of the DBS was the result of my work in market gardens, working with Lori Sumich in the 1980s when I was involved with Agrowplow, a deep ripping machine I designed in the late 1970s.
In those days, deep ripping didn’t hold much sway with the then Agriculture Department and I remember a researcher telling me we didn’t need deep ripping in WA because it consisted of a 50 foot deep sandhill.
That wasn’t what I found in Lori’s vegetable beds. Tell-tale lateral root growth was very evident in the market garden beds, highlighting soil barriers – compaction from rotary hoeing, natural settling of the soil and rain (in broadacres areas you can add vehicle trafficking and aluminium toxicity).
But after a rip I found sand would collapse after a heavy rain and the barrier would reform.
That’s what got me thinking about using plants roots as scaffolds to hold soil together in a loose structure which provided pathways for air and moisture and root access.
I couldn’t eliminate rotary hoeing in the vegie beds because it was the main tool for killing weeds and re-shaping the beds after crops had been harvested.
So the compromise was to follow-up with ripping once the plants were established.
The rip didn’t affect the plants and we found the roots grew quicker and went deeper and our first trial, in fact, saw a doubling of celery bunch size.
We put this down to adequate moisture and fertigation, which combined with new root pathways from ripping - providing air and moisture pathways - stimulated biological activity in the soil.
The key here is that what I call the ‘scaffolding effect’ function of plants roots to create a more porous soil structure – much like you get when you buy a bag of potting mix.
Hence came the pot plant analogy for broadacre plant establishment and the three slot system of the DBS – create a rip (or poke your finger into the potting mix), place the seed precisely in the rip on loosened soil (using a parallelogram system integrating the seeding boot) and tamping it down with a press wheel (your fingers in the case of a pot plant).
Our first trials with a prototype DBS proved the three-slot system worked and from then on it was a matter of refining the system to deliver precise product placement of seed and fertiliser (either deep banded or a split application for starter fertiliser with the seed).
We did more work with Lori and found that where we retained old roots in the soil, the vegetables increased in size.
I remember seeing lettuce which grew like a round ball rather than the flourish of leaves which you discard when you pick your choice in the supermarket.
Lori was at first critical that the system wasn’t working properly but an inspection of the ‘firm, round ball’ lettuce showed it to be healthier than conventional plants.
It was readily apparent to me that the pot plant-type soil environment of the vegie beds could be replicated for broadacre crop establishment.
And this spurred on the research and development of the DBS as a tool to create a soil environment which enhanced the ‘scaffolding effect’.
The role of roots is complex but simply put, in the right environment of moisture and air, root hairs interact with the micro-organic ‘community’ in a symbiotic relationship which builds soil structure.
Many DBS owners have told me their soil is getting softer and more structured and the tell-tale sign in the soil’s ability to hold moisture.
The action of the DBS and the resultant hill-valley finish for water harvesting, is in fact encouraging rain to stay where it falls as moisture is held by organic matter or humus.
(How many DBS owners have trouble filling dams on their properties because they no longer get run-off and have had to build roaded catchments)?
The other benefit of the DBS three slot system is that it allows the leaching of salts beyond the root zone although in some soil types hardpans or re-forming hardpans will need to be addressed for this successful leaching.
If you’re tackling re-forming hardpans you probably only need to dig down to about 175 to 200mm and you can achieve that with the DBS.
Remember, with our new Pro-D system, you can put the DBS to work as a renovator, particularly where you want to stimulate tired pasture paddocks and re-generate strong plant growth.
We have DBS owners already doing that of renovation and then seeding deep-rooted tropical plants and grass varieties with fibrous roots.
The other aspect of the DBS is its ability to establish crops in a dry start.
It’s probably one of the main areas of feedback I get when I speak with owners who talk about the ability of going in dry and wetting up seed beds.
The cultivation below the seed can tap into subsoil moisture which rises under pressure to the surface – it has given a lot of owners more confidence in establishing crops, particularly canola, which is prone to wet-dry scenarios resulting in staggered germinations.
So we’re finding that with the DBS, the importance of developing a moisture-holding soil structure is so important to healthy microbiology.
Picture eating an apple and putting it on the table. Pretty soon the apple starts to go brown.
That’s because there’s oxygen and moisture present which is the perfect environment for bacteria to operate.
This is the same sort of action that occurs in the subsoil with bacteria ‘alive’ in the presence of air and moisture.
There’s an old analogy that says you can only hold your breath for so long before you need air to live. That’s a similar case for soil.
As seeding programs start to kick off, I want to wish everybody an enjoyable and positive season.
And I would also encourage you to assess the benefits of liquid fertilisers and soil ameliorants.
Do a few trials to start with to see what works in your paddocks. Liquids to me seem to be the way to go and it was a major reason why I designed the Multistream liquid delivery system to provide farmers with some flexibility at seeding.
With the improvement in mapping programs and software applications, adopting a more flexible approach to your cropping programs, which could include variable product rates, is a good pathway to increasing farm profit.
So I just encourage more experimentation based on the proven principles we have established with the DBS system.
The more you farm using DBS principles the better your soil will get and the more money you will make.
Perhaps Confucius then might produce a new saying like: The ox is getting it and the earth is happier.

Building soil structure

category: 
Soils
There needs to be roots in the soil to build good structure.

There needs to be roots in the soil to build good structure.

By JOHN RYAN AM (The third and final story in a series) THE TRUISM of farming is flexibility. But I would add ... and building soil structure. Knowing plant roots are your best friend can keep you alert to opportunities. For example, planting legumes that are deep-rooted and nitrogen-fixing. Like spring or summer rain and assessing the worth of an opportunity crop to outcompete weeds and build the soil. This would be in contrast to a traditional summer “rip” after a thunderstorm. Deep tillage on its own is not the answer. There needs to be roots in the soil and in many cases, without the presence of roots to keep the soil open, you can find soil collapsing back into an even harder state. This is particularly true of cracking clays which can swell with moisture present and seal hard. Roots provide the important pathways for moisture infiltration. While there is no set template for building soil structure, your best starting point is with a shovel or preferably a backhoe to dig a soil pit. Take samples for laboratory testing and discover what you’re shooting at. It’s important to know your soils when, for example, you’re looking at bringing back sheep into the farm equation. A good first step would be to deep till in spring after rain while sowing a pasture crop, preferably a variety with a deep tap root, such as lucerne. Oats also helps to prevent weeds by competition and the oats straw makes good organic matter. Also have in mind that a spring renovation of paddocks using the DBS can be very beneficial, particularly using Pro-DF points which are easier to pull soil better, in all soil types. Forming soil compaction from livestock trafficking can be easily broken, promoting soil aeration and moisture penetration. I’m also reminded of work done by Quairading farmer and DBS owner Darryl Richards. Combined with the DBS action of deeper working to aerate the soil, treatments of lime sand, gypsum and dolomite, where appropriate, Darryl has promoted a healthier soil. This better structured soil has put him in a position of having a handle on a more balanced approach to fertiliser application with pH readings from 4.7 to 8.0 on his mainly medium to heavy country. The soil structure on his property is slowly improving and he is starting to see earthworms. Interestingly, since he bought his first DBS 17 years ago, Darryl’s seeding rate for wheat has been 50kg/ha. He cut back from 80kg/ha, which was to help control weeds, but now with the way he manages his paddocks to have them clean at seeding, he knows every seed planted by the DBS will come up and compete with any weeds, which gives him confidence of sowing at 50kg/ha. He has even tried sowing barley at 27kg/ha and it yielded the same as crops he sowed with 40 and 45kg/ha rates. Building soil does take time but the ripple effect of profitable gains is compelling.

The importance of plant roots

category: 
Soils

The second is a three part series by Ausplow owner and managing director John Rya AM. 

More than 50 years ago farmers were satisfied in the knowledge that building soil structure was the sensible pathway to sustainable and profitable cropping. It became a priority for many, after decades of clover-ley farming, to renovate pastures by deep tillage and/or incorporating stubble to alleviate soil compaction issues and build soil structure. Today we see more farmers turning back to sheep and assessing pasture rotations involving serradellas, clovers and grasses, in a similar way to those who farmed in the sixties, seventies and eighties. For many full-time croppers, however, we still lack a profitable legume for rotation. So what’s the answer? Years ago I remember sowing sorghum and the resultant effect it had in the soil. The plant’s fibrous roots provided a biological till of sorts while building soil structure. What also impressed me was the residual effect which was for a longer period than deep tillage. This is why I talk about the timing of deep tillage. Ideally you want plants growing in deep tilled soil to ensure the soil doesn’t collapse back and seal. Some farmers have deep tilled immediately after sowing – if conditions are ideal – or opportunistically on spring rain or after summer rain events. Depending on moisture levels in the soil, an additional program would be to establish an opportunity crop on the deep tilled country (Coil packers are very good to firm up soil before seeding). The whole exercise is beneficial in reducing non-wetting issues, reducing soil hardpans and creating an environment where moisture can “cleanse’ the top soil. And the focus is on root systems which are beneficiaries of subsoil cultivation and improved moisture infiltration and retention. Remember that moisture increases the amount of oxygen in the soil at depth which is vital for biological activity to decay matter and turn it into soil humus. If you’re mouldboarding and inverting the soil, sow a crop as quickly as possible, perhaps oats, to replace the roots you’ve inverted. In the early days of deep tillage, many farmers had seed boxes on them to plant pasture or a summer crop. The extension of keeping roots in the soil, I think, will lead to a diminution of deep tillage. The focus is on digging deeper, beyond 18 inches, but I don’t think that’s necessary. With a seven inch blade on your DBS, you can break the shallower hard pans and build an environment where plant roots virtually take over the job of tilling. A seven inch blade will scratch the surface of the next layer of hardpan and moisture will soften the “scratch” allowing roots access. How many times have you seen plants growing out of rock? Those of you who have dug soil pits are aware of how far down plants roots travel. You might argue the classic L-shaped roots you often see on canola plants, for example, are a sign that roots can’t access hardpans. Closer analysis of the soil might be more revealing, taking into account issues like acidity, sodicity and actual plant strength to penetrate hardpans. I believe maintaining a good root structure in the soil will provide many benefits, apart from the residual effects I spoke about earlier. NEXT WEEK: Building soil structure.

The quest for sustainable and profitable cropping

category: 
Soils
The focus of today's farming is no different to the pioneers. Keep the soil healthy and make money.

The focus of today's farming is no different to the pioneers. Keep the soil healthy and make money.

By Ausplow managing director JOHN RYAN AM

It was very evident to farmers in the early 1960s that changes had to be made to the conventional method of crop establishment - work-up, work-back on the break, then seed.

With annual events of topsoil erosion and declining soil nutrition leading to poorer-yielding crops, sheer economics pushed farmers to assess new ideas.

In the 1950s, NSW farmer Percival (P A) Yeomans led the charge developing a subsoil plough, called the Yeomans Plow, designed to reduce water and soil erosion by lifting and aerating the soil, while limiting soil disturbance.

In the 1960s, WA farmers latched onto a British method of one-pass crop establishment called direct drilling.

Next came farmers - understanding the cause of plough soles from cultivation – who experimented with deep tillage in the late 1970s and 1980s, then blade ploughs, then stubble mulch farming, or conservation tillage, with many employing offset discs to incorporate and break down stubble.

In the 1990s, after nearly 30 years of refining the one-pass crop establishment method, it morphed into no-till.

While many farmers knew little about the soil they tilled, an almost universal code of conduct applied to cropping, with two over-riding principles – trash should be left on the surface (arguably incorporated) and plant roots should be retained in the soil.

And there was more focus on using balanced fertiliser applications, involving N,P,K and trace elements.

There was a lot of talk and many seminars and grower meetings to discuss the benefits of less run-off, improved soil organic matter and soil structure.

But the focus on soil structure almost came to a halt 20 years ago with farmers more focused on weed resistance issues and acidic topsoils.

In the past five years, we have witnessed a flurry of activity, much like the 1950s and 1960s, with farmers looking for better ways to produce better crops.

More than 20 years of no-till has brought with it non-wetting issues to add to the complexity of weed resistance and acidity.

We’ve seen spading, mouldboard ploughing, delving, trials to dig deeper (down to 75cm or 30 inches) but still there’s remains no practical plan for farmers to adopt that can compare with the fairly simplistic approach taken by P A Yeomans.

He understood that soil structure and balanced nutrition, aligned with improved water-holding, were vital keys to sustainable and profitable cropping.

That’s why he adopted his Keyline farming system to harvest the rain that fell, while working the soil on the contour, to enhance the interaction of moisture, subsoil cultivation, covering trash, plant root retention and promoting balanced soil nutrition.

NEXT WEEK: The importance of plant roots.

 

 

 

 

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