FINDING a useable lime pit on their property is probably every WA farmer’s fantasy.
For the Fowler family, Chilwell, Condingup, that fantasy has become a reality after they unearthed a sizeable lime deposit on their property three years ago.
Andrew Fowler said they noticed cows licking rocks in an area of one of their paddocks and they did some investigation as to why.
After some ground truthing, a ‘fizz test’ and drilling test holes, the Fowlers were pleasantly surprised to find that they had stumbled across a good quality and large reserve of lime.
They are now in their third year of mining the lime and have pulled a total of 50,000 tonnes out for use on their 18,500 hectare cropping program.
The family has invested in a crusher, screener and stacker and have a full-time manager, Bruce Wilson, looking after the extraction process.
They are on track to produce about 20,000t of lime this year.
While all lime produced up to now has only been used on Chilwell, the development took a big step recently when the Fowlers were granted an extraction permit by the Esperance Shire.
If you have a lime source on your property that you just want to use privately, no extraction permit is required but if you want to sell lime off the property a permit is needed.
The first step was contacting the Shire of Esperance which suggested hiring a consultant to assist in the development of a business plan that is required to begin the permit process.
This turned out to be a large document outlining the suitability of site selection, environmental attributes of the area, planning considerations and rehabilitation post-mining.
Following the development of a business plan, an extraction permit was applied for and accepted on the condition of road maintenance and a bond in place for rehabilitation of the site, post mining.
Mr Fowler said while the process wasn’t exactly easy, enquiries they had from neighbours and the size of the deposit they were working with made it feasible to proceed with it.
“There is a significant deposit here – it is only a narrow strip but it could be one kilometre in length and it goes down about 20 metres, so there is enough lime to see me out,” Mr Fowler said.
“We have already pulled out 50,000t over the past three years and that is from a relatively small area.”
To begin the development of the site, contract earthmovers were used to clear away the topsoil.
Machinery had to be bought to use at the pit, including two loaders and a crusher.
For the first two years they hired screening equipment, but have since purchased their own screener and stacker.
The lime is spread post-harvest from December through to March with three trucks used for hauling the lime to the paddocks, which can be a 20km trip in some cases.
Mr Fowler said while the lime wasn’t as good a quality as what might be available on the west coast, it was still a high enough quality to make a big difference to their acidic soils.
“We sent the first samples off to AWTA to do a pH test and we also had wet and dry tests done through other laboratories and it tested well at about 80 per cent,” he said.
“Effectively particle size has a big influence on quality as well and while this lime is not super, super fine, its effective neutralising value is similar to what we were getting locally.
“The wet survey showed that it dissipates and works very quickly.
“From what I have seen and what intuition is telling me, I think it is better for pH than lime sand.
“The fact that it is right there on our property and we don’t have the freight cost also means we can increase the application rate compared to if we were trucking it in.
“In the past we would apply lime at two tonnes to a hectare but now we are putting it on at 3t/ha.
“We are fixing our pH levels pretty quickly at that rate.
“We started out putting it on every paddock that was testing under 4.5pH and we had a lot of area that was 4.3 when we started this process.
“Most of that country is testing at 5 now so it is making a big difference.”
There have been some significant cost savings made, even taking into account the machinery and labour costs involved in extraction.
“Because of our distance from Dalyup the delivered cost of lime is over $30/t,” Mr Fowler said.
“The cost for us to crush and screen our lime is around $18 per tonne - the big cost saving lies in the freight advantage.
“We are using it happily and I think it will work for the neighbours when you take the freight advantage into account.”
Pit manager Bruce Wilson, who was already employed as a farmhand on Chilwell, put his hand up to run the lime pit when the opportunity arose.
He said the past three years had been a learning curve for all involved.
“When we first started we were lucky to produce 150t a day, so it took a bit of working out,” Mr Wilson said.
“We are now producing 1000t a day, which is at maximum capacity for the set up we have.”
Mr Fowler said given the scale of the operation and what they were capable of producing a day, they would be “maxed out” supplying their own needs and a couple of neighbours’.
“We are flat out crushing and loading 1000t a day, so we are not going to be supplying the whole district,” he said.
The Fowlers are in the process of removing bluegums from a property they have just acquired a long-term lease on and Mr Fowler believes the stump grinder being used there, could have a part to play at the lime pit.
“We are thinking that machine may be able to break down some of the larger rocks that we are pulling out and if that is the case, we might be able to take the crusher out of the process altogether, which would reduce the labour component of the operation,” he said.