New pioneers in dryland farming

26 Jun, 2016 02:00 AM
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Yuna Farm Improvement Group president Brady Green (right) and committeeman Jason Batten checking out plant counts of a canola trial set up earlier this month to assess seeding depth.
Yuna Farm Improvement Group president Brady Green (right) and committeeman Jason Batten checking out plant counts of a canola trial set up earlier this month to assess seeding depth.

THEY used to be called pasture groups. But these days there's a wider spectrum of issues associated with what are now called farm improvement groups.

Not much has changed over the years in terms of searching for answers to vexed questions and last week's Yuna Farm Improvement Group's post emergent field walk didn't disappoint.

In fact the questions reflected the reason why the Yuna group morphed from a pasture group – holding an annual spring field day to look over a range of trial sites throughout the district – to its current structure of driving trials specific to members' needs.

Group president Brady Green said the start of precision guidance in the late 1990s proved a trigger for a greater focus on district issues.

"We immediately wanted to use precision guidance for variable rate technology," he said.

"We did a trial but at that stage technology wasn't up with our ideas.

"But it did set a course for us where we had to take ownership and do things properly.

"A trial can be a good idea but it has got to be of value to us and that's the parameter we set."

Committeeman and trial advisor Jason Batten said the group decided it would only do what it was capable of doing without corporatising.

"It's all volunteer work and the trials and errors we made early led us to thinking of having more control over what we wanted and for trials to be as objective as possible to reflect our district practice," he said.

It is almost a credo the group has faithfully adhered to over the years and even today it doesn't have a list of the proverbial platinum, gold and silver sponsors.

"Each year we establish a community crop and that basically is our income stream," Mr Batten said.

"We don't employ anybody and we've always wanted to keep it simple.

"Our focus is on farming in a drying environment because that's what it is and we've got to farm accordingly."

Mr Green the group's research and development work was sharpened with the emergence of weed resistance.

"Yuna was one of the first districts where resistant ryegrass and radish was discovered," he said.

"That triggered a lot of thinking about how to overcome the problem while at the same time sharpening our efforts at conserving moisture.

"So we hit weeds early and hard and we quickly learnt about rotating crops and chemical groups.

"Plus we got a lot of help in the early stages from Peter Newman, from the agriculture department, and Bill Campbell, from Nufarm.

"The penny dropped that's it's a numbers game so now with integrated weed management strategies such as crop topping and chemical fallows (on better loamy soils), and the introduction of canola into our rotations, we're making good headway against the resistance problem."

Mr Green, who is a total cropper, also believes Roundup Ready varieties have been a major influence in controlling weed seed levels of radish and grasses.

"Canola was going to die out in the district because of atrazine-resistance," he said.

"But then the RR varieties came in and there was a huge adoption in the district at the expense of lupins."

He still grows lupins and believes there is hope for a renaissance of legumes back into rotations.

"There are new varieties emerging and if prices get better I can see more adoption," he said.

Mr Batten said summer weed control is the priority to maximise every opportunity to conserve moisture.

"There's also a focus on planting grasses to hold down the sand dunes," he said.

In fact perennial grasses may become an agenda item when discussing future trials because there has been no research on perennials in yellow sand in the Yuna district.

The pair believe the interaction of ideas among group members and the almost forensic analysis of research work has led to a smarter approach to farming in the district.

And trial work reflects this by assessing paddock renovation comparing spading, mouldboarding and deep tilling along with controlled traffic farming.

"We're really honing in on selecting our better paddocks these days," Mr Green said.

"And there's a lot more thinking about dealing with the poorer-performing soils, by either culling them or say planting them to perennial grasses and becoming more livestock-focused," Mr Batten said.

That's an interesting concept in a mostly 100 per cent cropping district but the Battens' business has integrated Dorper sheep into the farming system.

And some farmers are assessing the introduction of cattle.

Ironically, while today's farmers could be regarded as the new pioneers of agriculture, it could be a Back to the Future scenario for many farmers, where crop-livestock ratios rule farm economics as they did for decades in the 1900s in dryland farming areas.

And old questions still persist, particularly in dryland cropping areas.

How early can I start sowing?

What is the best time to apply nitrogen?

Should I stick with wide spacings or go with splitters?

Is precision farming the way to go?

"As far as the group is concerned, everything is on the table," Mr Batten said.

"We're open to all questions and ideas."

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FarmWeekly
Ken Wilson

Ken Wilson

is Farm Weekly's machinery writer

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