IT’S not often you snag earthworms while seeding.
But that’s what happened to Yuna farmer Murray Brooks when several little wrigglies got caught on the digging blades of his DBS precision seeder last year.
It has probably occurred elsewhere but in the sandy reaches of Yuna you would have bet money against seeing an earthworm, let alone “catching” several.
The story has a point.
Earthworms are the metaphorical canary in the coalmine, heralding improved soil.
That’s the whole focus for Murray and his son Jeremy, who are working out a succession plan as Murray notches his 45th year on the farm.
With all those years under his proverbial belt, Murray is keen to assist Jeremy’s enthusiasm to look at a more diverse income base for the farm.
Both instinctively know monoculture farming is not the way to go anymore, given hurdles such as low rainfall and chemical resistance.
Diversity is the buzzword and it is likely to take WA agriculture in a new direction within the next decade.
But I digress.
Three years ago, Jeremy wanted to trial a tropical perennial grass called Gatton Panic, undersown with Rhodes Grass (sown on an 80:20 ratio), with a view to establishing a year-round feeding base for cattle.
Murray backed his son, despite his long history as a grain grower.
About 105 hectares was established in early August, 2016, but no rain was recorded that summer and Murray was thinking “nice try but no lollies”.
So father and son decided to leave the trial alone for 12 months, showing that persistence can lead to success.
Murray said he was genuinely surprised by the following summer to see its establishment on the back of cyclone-induced rain in January this year.
“It just took off without any fertiliser and grew about up to my chest,” Murray said.
“The cows came in two months later and smashed it down but when the season broke the plant growth took off again.
“We had secured 50 head of cattle but we could have carried a lot more.”
Jeremy is also pleased with the result because it crystalises his idea to introduce cattle to the farm, though he remains circumspect about whether he will just trade or breed.
“The area we have selected is coarse deep sand that goes down to about 20 metres and we can’t grow more than 1.5 tonnes a hectare of wheat,” Jeremy said.
According to Murray, that’s in a good year (averaging 275 millimetres of rain).
“But if you get 10mm of rain here you get good feed,” he said.
“So we don’t have that cost of establishing a crop that’s not going to pay its way and we don’t have to buy-in hay for the cattle because they’ve got good tucker year-round.”
There’s also the flexibility to cell graze or introduce tighter feed rotations with a grain-graze strategy.
Jeremy said the trial block may expand to 500ha to handle an increased herd size “down the track”.
“This is still a bit of a work in progress,” he said.
“But we can see the cattle will give us a bit more diversity in the system and we won’t be wasting money trying to grow crops here.
“You can’t fallow this country because of wind erosion.
“With the Panic and Rhodes Grass we’ve got cover all year, so this trial is showing us a way to get a financial return, particularly in the dry years.”
From Murray’s perspective it is a big win for the farm.
“If we stuck to just cropping, we’d be making money three years out of every 10,” he said.
“Diversity is the key word but we just don’t get enough rainfall.”
Nevertheless Jeremy is far from finished assessing opportunities.
This year he is bulking up Serradella varieties to introduce a winter active legume to improve the soils.
Jeremy is keen to finish off the 1000ha of deep ripping that will complete a 6000ha program.
“We’ve put in a bit more effort over the past three years using a Nufab deep ripper that gets us down to 550mm,” he said.
Going so deep (or really deep with some other farmers), has raised a lot of eyebrows, especially with older generation farmers, but Murray said the results speak for themselves.
“In my wildest dreams I never thought we would have soil down at that depth,” he said.
According to Jeremy, inclusion plates are fitted on the ripper to introduce lime.
“We’ve been pretty aggressive with the lime and some paddocks have had four tonnes in five years, with about 3000t going on every year,” he said.
Topsoil pH has moved to between 4.8 and 6 while subsoil pH also is moving up into the low fours.
The strategy to improve soil health and structure is obviously working and Murray said deep ripping and employing the DBS at seeding were two big factors.
“We’ve had the DBS since 2009,” he said.
“It’s a 60 foot (18.2 metre) working width, which isn’t compatible with our controlled traffic farming but it’s a compromise we’re happy about.
“We use seven inch (17.5 centimetre) blades and we’re finding the soil is more pliable and you can work it better.
“Our fuel is going down to between 60 and 70 litres an hour compared with 80-110L/hr previously, so the softer soil is obvious to us.”
Anecdotal evidence from farmers this writer has spoken with, throughout the Wheatbelt, confirm the need to ameliorate and renovate soils to ensure sufficient pathways for moisture and easier access for root growth.
Oxygen in the soil is what granddad was referring to when he spoke about paddocks breathing.
“Plants are just like humans, son,” he used to say.
“They need to breathe.”
The beneficial consequence of healthy plants and healthy soils is the presence of “canaries” in the soil.
And they put a whistle in the step of every farmer.