Doing more with less

19 Apr, 2006 08:45 PM
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BUYING more land to increase crop production does not necessarily provide increased gross margins.

Asking any graingrower will reveal the preferred pathway would be to grow more on less.

Take Meckering farmers Craig and Fiona Hitchcock, for example.

They crop just 600ha and run 2000 Merinos.

Five years ago the cropping yields on the non-wetting soils were around 1.1t/ha to 1.6t/ha with pastures declining to mongrel corkscrew and silver grass.

A lot of the country was a mix of non-wetting grey, white and yellow sand and gravel.

"Crop establishment always was very hard because while we got moisture, most of it was leached away from the top profile and you'd get the classic wet-dry scenario at seeding," Mr Hitchcock said.

"I went from a combine to a bar with knife points but that didn't change things much and the soil throw meant that you were putting non-wetting soil back on top of the seeding trench.

"Once it rained it was okay but at the time of sowing the top profile would be dry down to three inches (76cm).

"The crop would eventually get up but it would be very late and subsequently there would be a yield penalty."

Mr Hitchcock believes the problem was exacerbated because a lot of the country grew blue lupins, leaving a waxy cover on the soil.

The non-wetting soils also saw poor pasture growth establishment with little carryover into summer.

The other problem for Mr Hitchcock was sheep camps on the light land creating wind erosion problems.

A do nothing decision would have seen the land continue to deteriorate to a non-productive level.

So Mr Hitchcock decided to evaluate clay spreading.

With an immediate yield response in crops in the first year, he has since embarked on a clay-spreading and incorporating program involving an average 85ha a year.

"You only do it once, so you never have to clay again," Mr Hitchcock said.

After five years, he says his wheat yields have lifted by an average 0.6t/ha to 1.5t/ha.

After claying the non-wetting soils his pastures now grow good clover and serradellas and his stocking rate has doubled to 6DSE.

Another interesting observation from last year is the fact that frosts did not impact as badly on wheat crops.

"I've been told clay increases the surface temperature of the soil by one or two degrees and it's just enough to help crop plants survive," Mr Hitchcock said.

"Another reason could be related to improved plant health.

"Basically the claying has provided that zone we need in the topsoil to hold moisture and nutrients and that has basically meant more productive land.

"I'm now getting to the stage where the gross margin story is more in my favour.

"It takes about two or three years of cropping to get to that stage but I'm now putting myself in a situation where I believe we've got a sustainable enterprise.

"And I can only see it getting better as the soil develops more friability and fertility, which also is assisted by using knife points and getting into the deeper soil profile."

Spreading costs are $350/ha plus diesel (90-100L/ha) and the associated costs of incorporating, which can involve several passes.

In Mr Hitchcock's case, he incorporates the clay using a cultivator bar with 15cm sweeps, then follows a smudge bar (two railway lines welded together) to smooth and level the soil and break up clods.

The final incorporation is with offset discs.

"Incorporation is the key," Mr Hitchcock said.

"I like to work the clay into around 10cm and get it all completed within five to six days of the clay being spread."

Spreading is done by Central West Claying contractor John Reid, Bindoon, who operates two six-wheel drive South African-built Bell Hitachi Mercedes-powered 336kW (450hp) trucks.

They are equipped with a hydraulically-operated ejector body used to back-fill underground mines.

Mr Reid designed a chain assembly spreader, which he fitted to the rear of the ejector body to peel off and spread clay being pushed out by the ejector body.

"Conventional clay spreaders created too much downtime with maintenance and the productivity rate was very slow," Mr Reid said.

"I used to get a third of a hectare done an hour on a good run but with the new gear I can achieve one hectare to one and a half hectares an hour.

"Depending on conditions I can get 10-15ha done in a day spreading at a rate of 200t/ha.

"So I've made it a more cost-efficient operation for me and my clients."

Part of that cost efficiency is to use clay on-farm, hence the drilling rig.

"I can usually locate clay by just looking at the soil," Mr Reid said. "You look for clay on top of anthills or where there are gravel stones.

"I then excavate a pit and create a drive through for the prime mover for easy fills."

Another strategy using clay is to spread over winter, especially on a weak pasture paddock, allowing the clay to achieve a partial incorporation.

Then in spring, a green manuring operation can be achieved to incorporate the clay along with plant material.

It is not a bad way of reducing problem grasses or weeds while improving the soil structure.

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