Scaddan farmer explores sustainable options

29 Mar, 2011 04:00 AM
Straw will be included in compost at David Campbell's farm, Scaddan.
Straw will be included in compost at David Campbell's farm, Scaddan.

SUSTAINABLE farming has been taken to a new level by the Campbell family, Scaddan.

Millet crops formed a pivotal part of the Campbell's cropping rotation this year by helping to improve the overall health and productivity of the family farm.

In recent weeks the Campbells harvested their millet plantings, which David sowed to utilise the excess paddock moisture on his properties and keep soil biology functioning throughout summer.

At both his Scaddan and Munglinup farms millet was grown in a wide range of soil types and weather conditions to balance the risk associated with a less than ideal growing season.

The Campbells cropped about 11,000 hectares in the 2010/11 season made up mostly of canola which, according to David, "drowned" and finished terribly in patchy conditions.

His cereals yielded just below the usual three tonne average and the canola finished at 800 kilograms, well below its usual 1.5t/ha average.

With a less than perfect finish to the season, David decided to "scratch in" some millet in the drowned areas as a solution to the rising salt problem experienced in the region.

But growing a unique crop didn't take place without its challenges.

The majority of millet crops grown in the South Coastal region of WA are sold to the limited birdseed market which meant on-farm storage was a necessity for David.

"The crop finished quickly this year," he said.

"It was put in in October and like the rest of the crops there were good patches and bad patches."

David said millet had an invaluable effect on the soil.

The crop's far stretching root system improved non-wetting soil types and cycled nutrients very efficiently.

Although a self-confessed chemical farmer, David described himself as a biological grower and said his key driver was to understand how he could better manage soil biology on both his properties.

"The key is to be sustainable," he said.

"Some things we do might not make sense to some farmers but our property size gives us the capacity to experiment.

"We live in a reasonably reliable rainfall area and recognise the fact artificial fertilisers aren't doing good things to our soils.

"They're costing us more and more money and we're getting to the stage where we're not getting a good bang for our buck."

But David didn't believe cutting chemical from the program was the answer to his problem and said productivity levels would almost always be his first consideration.

"We've reduced our phosphate inputs and changed our nitrogen strategy a lot," David said.

"Millet increased the organic carbon in our cycle and rather than growing a crop and feeding a crop I tend to think about feeding the biology which in turn looks after the crop."

The Esperance region is well known for its ability to host a range of rusts and fungi and David's challenge was to reduce his chemical inputs and maintain a high level of productivity.

"We've had pretty good success with our strategy and instead of putting chemical out just because it's that time of year, we only do it if we have to because the impact on the fungi in the soil is massive," David said.

"It's fungi depletion in the soil which is causing farmers a lot of problems but there aren't a lot of people looking at it.

"Fungi breaks down stubbles, hold calcium in the soil and perform many other important functions."

Another of David's challenges was to maintain the logistics associated with managing a "whole of system" farming approach.

He said the somewhat simple way of spraying everything, sowing a crop with all the protectors on it, shutting the gate and waiting for it to grow was unfortunate for WA agriculture.

"Sadly agronomists in WA are directing a lot of farmers to do it this way," he said.

"But on the flip side no one can afford not to use chemical.

"We know how to be productive in a chemical system and the challenge is to make subtle changes to use less of it."

It continues to be a massive learning curve for the Campbells as David and his wife Linda forge ahead to discover what drives soil biology on their farms.

David is looking into mixing urea with water as an alternative to Flexi-N.

"It's a far better form of nitrogen but logistically it's more difficult to manage," he said.

"It's incredibly frustrating because we are constantly creating more work for ourselves."

David's eight permanent staff are also assisting him to reach his long-term goal to become more sustainable on the land.

There are still a number of factors which David and his family are working on in terms of the farm's production longevity.

"No one else is going to do it so it's up to growers to do what they can for the long-term viability of the industry," he said.

"It's of no commercial gain for artificial fertiliser and chemical retailers so they won't be putting their hands up to come up with more sustainable solutions."

Another of the Campbell's projects is to look at the potential for compost use within their operation.

David is currently going through the process of applying for a license from the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC).

For now, he's allowed to manufacture 1000 tonnes of compost a year without a license.

The time expensive project will utilise green waste, straw, chaff dumps, carbon outputs, grain seconds, manure and bio-solids in an attempt to produce a healthier product to apply to crops.

"Rather than burning the nutrients we've undertaken some trial work to see just how effective this can be," David said.

"Making good compost is not something you can just do.

"The carbon to nitrogen ratio needs to be spot on and it has to be composted properly in order to get the best bang for your buck."

Composting is a very costly venture, as David will attest to and is one of the main focuses on the farm at the moment.

The plan is to extract biology from the compost and apply it through the liquid system in the air-seeders as well as applying some solid material.

"It's a combination approach," David said.

"We need to extract as much diverse biology from the compost as we can.

"It's awesome to see how much you can grow from it and we've done our research, there is a huge demand for high quality compost."

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Adrian Price
30/01/2012 5:21:10 PM, on Farm Weekly

I am very interested in your large scale farm composting project. I found your article when searching for farm composting initiatives. It is my hope to encourage a farmer or group of farmers to set up a composting unit near Dowerin. Can you provide more details, especially machinery. I have seen the large compost windrow turners and feel this is the way to go. With the increasing cost and predicted future shortage of chemical fertilisers, other farmers need to observe your initiative. The oil mallee industry promote mulching and/or composting after each harvesting.


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