Blue gums given the chop for a crop

30 Jul, 2015 02:00 AM
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Kieran Allison surveys a plantation of Tasmanian blue gums earmarked for cropping -
...it's a pretty cheap exercise that gives you land back forever.
Kieran Allison surveys a plantation of Tasmanian blue gums earmarked for cropping - "I don't think there's any point in keeping trees that don't serve a purpose and attract council rates."

IT was a simple matter of economics for Amerillup Pastoral Company, Perillup (west of Mt Barker).

Faced with a sizeable acreage of six-year-old Tasmanian blue gums - relinquished by a plantation investor after a lease agreement was finalised two years ago - company director Ross and his nephew Kieran Allison decided to reclaim the land for more profitable pursuits.

"We got the land back after the first rotation and some of the plantation hadn't been cut," Kieran Allison said.

"It was obvious we wouldn't get much money for the blue gums yet we were still paying council rates on the land so we decided pretty quickly we had to do something."

Last year Ross and Kieran decided to do a 100 hectare trial to work out gross margins of regenerating the land to crop production.

The two most conventional ways of clearing trees is excavating or bulldozing but since 2009, stump grinding has increased in popularity because of minimal soil disturbance and the quicker turnaround time.

In their trial, Ross and Kieran chained two rows of trees at once before windrowing and burning.

Soil tests in January 2014 revealed soil pH at about 4.4, so three tonnes to the hectare of lime was spread along with 250kg/ha of super, copper, zinc and molybdenum.

This was then incorporated by twice speed-tillering, complete with a cage roller, at a 45 degree angle to the old tree rows to incorporate residues and trash.

"We knew the blue gums took a lot out of the soil and also left it non-wetting which is why we speed-tillered to get good incorporation," Kieran Allison said.

It was then sown to oats for the precise reason to burn thick stubble residues that also would burn any remaining trash, including big sticks.

"Oats also is a handy crop to grow and the roots go deep and aren't as affected by soil pH," Mr Allison said.

This year Ross and Kieran, bought a stump grinder from Albany company Himac to renovate another block (400ha) as part of a process of clearing up to 98 per cent of the blue gums.

"We think the grinder will speed up the process of getting land back into production," Kieran Allison said.

"We'll leave some in stands in the wet spots, some as shelter belts and along creek lines but basically most of the arable land will be returned to cropping."

The 400ha block, which had been cleared with only stumps left, will be established in the same way as the trial block.

"Everything will be the same because we feel grinding the stumps will get the land back into productivity more quickly," Mr Allison said.

Assessing capital costs, he agrees they are high, with contract grinding costing $700 a hectare.

"But you've got to take the point of view that if you amortise that cost over 10 years, it's a pretty cheap exercise that gives you land back forever with the potential to make money every year forever," Mr Allison said.

"I don't think there's any point in keeping trees that don't serve a purpose and attract council rates."

An important aspect of their regenerating operation is the tractor used to pull the grinder.

Kieran and Ross opted for a New Holland T8.435 from McIntosh & Son, Albany.

According to farm employee and tractor operator Ben Standish, who has notched an impressive amount of hours of grinding over the past 12 months in the Frankland region, having the right tractor is imperative to ensure cost efficiencies when grinding.

"You've got to have at least 400 horsepower (298kW) under the bonnet," he said.

"Last year I used a tractor which kicked out 360hp (268kW) but even with an IVT transmission you can stall the PTO or motor because once you've over the stump, you're speed is about 0.5km/h and even that's still too fast.

"The T8.345 has got AutoCommand which syncs with the engine and you can get the speed down to metres an hour without stressing the gearbox."

According to McIntosh & Son salesman Gavin Dunstan, the T8.435 is equipped with a CVT transmission that senses PTO load and automatically adjusts travelling speed to as low as three metres an hour to prevent the tractor from stalling or blowing out turbo chargers.

"While you're grinding, you have boosted power of 435hp (325kW)," he said.

"The more horsepower at that level that is held consistently, the faster the grinding operation."

Mr Dunstan said the increased interest in regenerating blue gum blocks was reflected in increased inquiry for the right machinery.

"There's a lot of people wanting to get out of blue gums but their biggest concern is where to start," he said.

"There has not been a lot of renovating done so knowledge is being passed on anecdotally.

"Our involvement along with Himac is providing farmers with a greater confidence to regenerate blocks of land because we've built up the knowledge base."

Coincidentally, the branch's after sales manager Paul Berghella, was formerly a maintenance manager with field chipping contractors L V Dohnt, which remains a key contractor for corporate companies involved in wood chipping.

"We're in on the ground floor with farmers wanting to regenerate land and we do have an advantage with our T8 series tractors," Mr Berghella said.

"It can be seen as a new growth for the economy of the region and I have no doubt it will continue to grow and we'll see an expansion of broadacre cropping which I liken to a renaissance.

"We have clients who have purchased blue gum properties over the past two years and they are keen to renovate the land and make it profitable.

"The appeal is the high rainfall and if blue gums can grow in this region, anything can grow."

Mr Berghella also believed the future of the wood chip industry was strong and would continue to be an important economic impact for the Albany region.

"Companies are scrutinising their investments a lot more these days and you've got cases where some are facing lower yields in rotations and a percentage of plantations are not going back for re-growth.

"In those lower-yielding areas, broadacre cropping and livestock production will be more profitable but I believe both industries can work side-by-side to generate more income for the region."

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Ken Wilson

Ken Wilson

is Farm Weekly's machinery writer

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