Interfacing machinery with the soil

Interfacing machinery with the soil


Agribusiness
A Gregoire Besson mouldboard in action.

A Gregoire Besson mouldboard in action.

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THE world-recognised 2015 Year of Soil reflected the continuing interface of machinery and agronomy.

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THE world-recognised 2015 Year of Soil reflected the continuing interface of machinery and agronomy.

It has been a growing trend, since the start of one-pass crop establishment using direct drilling techniques, which have morphed into no-till.

But this year re-focused the picture to not only include seeding and deep till machinery, but also speed tillers, deeper deep tillers, offset discs and precision gear such as the ProTrakker.

While rain is seen as a limiting factor to increased crop production, getting the soil back to a more balanced state, using the right machinery, is seen as a crucial factor by all farmers, as highlighted in many stories published in Farm Weekly this year.

My pick for the best story is Mullewa farmers Andrew and Rod Messina who, with their father Charlie, are not afraid to try new machines in the quest for increasing soil quality.

Five years ago, the brothers were early adoptees of mouldboard ploughing, which is still seen as the quickest way to incorporate lime at depth in sandplain country, to correct low soil pH.

The best part of the story was airing their mistakes.

"With the mouldboard, our first lesson was to wait for the right conditions," Andrew said.

"In 2011, we did a trial paddock of 120 hectares that we mouldboarded in April on the back of summer rain and then we sowed wheat.

"But the topsoil dried out causing germination problems and we also encountered a bigger weed burden, which we didn't expect.

"So we had to re-sow in late May.

"What we realised with the weeds, was the skimmers were too small so we made bigger skimmers.''

The skimmers are positioned in front of the mouldboards to effectively "skim" the topsoil containing weed seeds and non-wetting soil and tip the material into the hole created by the mouldboard "legs" during the soil inversion process.

If the soil is wet, skimmed soil easily flows into the hole but if the soil is dry, seeds can end up higher in the soil profile which is shallow enough to germinate.

Logically any mouldboarding done is usually in the last paddock of the seeding program, when more often than not, conditions are wet.

But again the theory often doesn't match the practice.

"In 2013 we got 15 millimetres of rain as we were mouldboarding," Andrew said.

"We sowed wheat soon after but it didn't rain for a month and the clay we brought up crusted and set hard.

"About 60 per cent of the crop germinated with the better country worse because we brought up more clay.

"We only needed 5-6mm of rain after it was sown but it was three weeks before we got any more.

"It turned out to be a low rainfall year so the staggered germinations meant low plant density and we finished up OK."

Five years on, the Messinas do not regret embracing mouldboard ploughing despite up-front capital costs and high working costs of $80/ha upwards.

"The non-wetting issue has been solved with the clay we're brought up in the house pad yellow sand and so long as there's a band of that soil in the top 70mm we're happy because it wets up easily and also benefits from any water harvesting," Andrew said.

"In soil pits we've dug, you can see a mass of roots at the 300mm (12in) level accessing moisture and nutrients.''

Markedly reduced weeds burdens also lowered chemical costs.

"We haven't blanket-sprayed a lupin crop for radish since we started mouldboarding," Andrew said.

This year the brothers also tried out a prototype Gregoire Besson Heliripper to provide feedback to the company.

It's a two-row 3PL hydraulically-operated bar with a six metre (20ft) working width with 13 tines spaced at 46cm (18in).

The leading row of tines work at 50cm (20in), making it easier for the rear row of tines to work at 80cm (32in).

In combination, hardpans are broken and soil is fractured across the working width.

A rotary prickle chain is attached to help level and incorporate lime.

In time, the hope is that a more balanced and structured soil profile will not only provide bigger crop yields in good rainfall years, but also will provide a buffering effect in low rainfall years.

The latter was seen to an extent last year when crops held on through a hot August.

"While the canola got stressed, it held up and finished OK even though it was low-yielding," Andrew said.

"I don't think we would have got the same results from a conventional sowing."

The jury is still out on whether mouldboarding is a one-off exercise and how long the residual effect of the Heliripper will be.

My pick for second best story this year involved German manufacturer Horsch, with a speed tiller called the Joker.

Beaumont (east Esperance) farmer Phil Longmire, was one of several Esperance farmers who used a 12.8m (42ft) two row disc Joker.

"I did 200ha of wheat stubble that had been ripped and spaded and it was going into canola," he said.

"The bar did a good job of levelling the soil while working the stubble into the soil.

"It also was done in March in dry conditions and broke down all the cloddy clay caused by the ripping and spading.

"We worked to about 50mm (2in) and used our DBS knife points for depth but it could have gone twice as deep.

"We will continue to work at 50mm but would prefer a moist profile for soil-stubble contact and our aim is to Joker 900ha this season."

What also appeals to Mr Longmire, apart from setting up his seeding program, is the re-incorporation of lateral roots to provide a more porous or structured environment that may reduce non-wetting issues.

"I worked it at 12.5km/h and the straw tended to float to the top with the packers crimping it and it didn't blow," Mr Longmire said.

"That incorporation or mulching gave us a good canola germination which I would rate as one of our best, with good seed-soil contact and strong lateral root growth.

"I would probably use the Joker in rotation after about four years of no-till, so I would be doing different paddocks every year on a one-in-five basis."

And to fill the judge's podium, third place goes to the ProTrakker, marketed by Katanning-based Burando Hill.

Company director and Mindarabin farmer Simon Hill was encouraged by first year trial results involving the ProTrakker.

The ProTrakker is a hydraulically-controlled guidance hitch - linked from the tractor to a seeding bar - which enables accurate sowing into the previous year's stubbles without disturbing the stubbles.

"Our trial shows a 7pc yield increase across wheat, barley and canola trials," Simon said.

"And I would expect even better results in a hard finish.

"It is definitely proving a valuable tool and a 7pc lift in yields over a big program is significant.

"It's easy to see the visual differences sowing alongside the stubble and sowing in the inter-row with the ProTrakker compared with conventional sowing."

Arguably the ProTrakker is taking precision seeding to a new level, especially on non-wetting soils.

Because the GPS-ready hitch eliminates the problem of bar drift, it can maintain a bar's line of direction within an accuracy of plus or minus one to two centimetres (0.4-0.8in).

This contrasts with bar movements of plus or minus 20cm (8in) normally associated with seeding rigs.

"The ProTrakker has several advantages for us because we can sow our canola in semi-wet conditions drilling it into last year's furrows without disturbing the stubble," Simon said.

"And we can sow wheat on the inter-row in high stubble residue paddocks, again without disturbing the stubble cover.

"Without the ProTrakker we couldn't reliably sow between rows let alone seed alongside the stubble in last year's rows."

There were plenty of innovative products introduced to the WA market this year and the obvious story which probably would have been judged the winner, involved telematics, or real-time data transfer.

Unfortunately, while software is available, the lack of a reliable mobile signal is holding back this new breakthrough.

Hopefully it will make my 2016 list.

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