CONSTANT fine tuning of existing concepts and a dedication to trying new ideas in broadacre cropping are the hallmarks of Laurie and Carolyn Butler's approach to production on their Perenjori property. The Butlers' Fitzroy Downs property is home to a mixed enterprise, comprising cereal, legume and oilseed cropping and wool and prime lamb production but, underpinning the whole program, has been extensive work on improving soil health. Laurie firmly believes that the biological farming concepts of American soil health expert Arden Anderson hold great potential for broadacre dryland farming in WA, particularly in terms of limiting synthetic inputs. "One of Arden Anderson's major points is that balancing soils in terms of nutrients offers the possibility of stepping off the artificial fertiliser treadmill," he said. "And I am now convinced that you can increase your productivity without increasing the level of synthetic inputs." Part of the effort to decrease the percentage of synthetic inputs at Fitzroy Downs has been the mixing of agricultural sugar with urea at seeding, a process that has the double advantage of reducing the levels, and therefore cost burden, of urea, while improving the carbohydrate level of the soil. Recent research has shown that increasing carbohydrate levels in the soil has the effect of increasing the soil fauna or biotic population, now regarded as a reliable indicator of soil health. Laurie has already undertaken a comprehensive liming program over the property, with the aim of not only restoring soil Ph but also increasing the calcium levels of the soil, another integral element of improving soil health. The program has so far revolved around the application of lime sands but will in future incorporate limestone and gypsum. Another element that had to be addressed was tillage practices and, since moving from minimum till to no till four years ago, the benefits to plant and soil health have been encouraging, as well as offering increased soil stability. According to Laurie, the importance of this particular benefit has been made abundantly clear, with the extremely wet start to the season in the northern wheatbelt areas. "Using the knife points over the past three to four years, I have noticed a definite increase in productivity on the medium to heavy soil types, the root growth and development has been excellent," he said. "In general around the district, the increased use of narrow points, stubble retention and working on the contour has led to increased soil stability and less erosion." The 1700-hectare cropping program on Fitzroy Downs this year was completed using a Case IH 9150 4WD towing a Flexi-Coil 820 bar fitted with DBS knife points and a Flexi-Coil 1720 tow behind box. The spacings for cereals and canola were set at nine inches, while, for legumes, half were dropped out to provide 18-inch spacings. While legumes have always been a strong element of cropping rotations on the sandplain country of the northern Wheatbelt, their use on medium to heavy soils has been compromised by fungal disease concerns. In an attempt to overcome this, Laurie has followed the approach adopted by legume growers through the heavy black soil areas of northern NSW and southern Queensland by moving to 18in spacings for chickpeas and lupins. "Basically, I tried to increase the density of the rows, while allowing increased air movement between the rows to prevent humidity and fungal problems at the base of the plant," he said. Laurie's 130ha Sona chickpea program was planted at 110 kilograms/ha with DAP. A first for the Butlers this season has been the growing of Cassab lentils as part of the Perenjori Farm Improvement Group trials. The Cassab variety is a red lentil destined for tables in either Australia or the Middle East and offering a premium to growers. The canola component of the cropping program has been based on Karoo until this season, which has seen the introduction of the short season Hylite 200 variety, a development Laurie feels offers the advantage of reducing the herbicide burden. "The Hylite 200 I think offers short season canola potential, so you have a chance of cutting down on herbicide costs by going for a single knockdown," he said. "At the moment, we are putting canola in dry and spending our money on Atrazine."