Always seeking next step at Wittenoom Hills

Shannon Beattie
By Shannon Beattie
February 17 2022 - 2:00am
Mic Fels, Wittenoom Hills, is interested in alternative ways of building soil health and is excited to be monitoring a five-year trial commenced on the family's farm by independent research company, South East Agronomy Research.

DESPITE the complexities, challenges and, at times, mysteries of broadacre cropping today, you get the feeling some have a good handle on it and could attract a "look over the fence'' - and Mic Fels, at Wittenoom Hills in WA's south east region, is one of those.

He is confident in the direction of the family's continuous, disc-sown cropping operation, reinforced by improving soil health, grain yields and profits, as well as reduced inputs, but he is always seeking the next step to further build soils and their resilience.

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This, combined with coming up with a farming system where they can apply the same, simple methods across their range of soils and achieve good results on all of them.

Mr Fels knows that focusing on building soil health has solved a lot of problems and, while recognising the good fortune of farming young, quality country and adopting this approach, he also admits this has not always been a top priority over the history of WA agriculture.

"In the early days, it was probably more about getting as much as you can out of the land than it was about putting back into it, but I think things have changed a lot in the past 20 or 30 years,'' Mr Fels said.

"Since no-till, we've been constantly improving and people are getting better productivity even on our traditionally poorer soils, but we are having to spend a fair bit of money to ameliorate them in certain cases, which is probably now a bit of catch-up from years of taking from those soils.

"All soils can be improved and it's about being careful - treating them with kindness rather than just flogging them.

"Eliminating basic things (such as bare ground) is good for a start.

"Then it's about how we can keep building it from there.''

Mr Fells said over his 30 years in farming, agriculture had become a more technical, scientific and exciting industry to be in and the focus was now moving beyond chemical farming.

"It was a revelation what we could achieve with chemicals and chemical fertilisers and how much it grew our productivity, but I think it has got to a point where 'if a little bit is good, it doesn't mean a lot is better'," Mr Fels said.

"The green revolution has brought us a long way, but I think now that agriculture has gone through that incredible period, we are realising there's a bit more nuance to this.

"More people are now starting to think, 'we can't keep putting more and more stuff on this soil and think it's going to make it better'.

"A lot of these products are actually designed to kill things when, as a farmer, I see my job as trying to grow things - it doesn't all stack up when you think about it.

"It's now more about, 'let's get down to the nitty gritty of what's really helping and what's interfering with the process of building our soils'.

"And we can probably start taking some of those things out and replace them with things that are more positive in terms of soil health.

"In our case, we haven't used prophylactic insecticides for three to four years - not even on our canola, which people find a bit shocking.

"It's become a bit normal for people to use broadspectrum insecticides several times a year on their farms, (but) I'm a bit horrified about what that's doing to the soil biology that we are trying to grow.

"Imagine if we all took constant, broadspectrum antibiotics - what that would do to our own health.

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"That's what's driven it for us - and we are not getting any more insects without using insecticides - and I think that's because our system is becoming a bit more resilient.''

The Fels crop 6000 hectares at Wittenoom Hills, including leased land, to cereals, canola and some lupins over soils ranging from coastal sandplain through to traditional mallee country with sandy tops, as well as some heavy clay areas.

A controlled traffic system, use of their own designed and built iPaddock-Alphadisc seeding rig on narrow rows for increased biomass production and full residue retention and amelioration, including mouldboard ploughing, has dramatically improved soils and crop yields.

A stronger legume component in the rotation, where it is profitable, is being considered to help further build resilience and also allow herbicide rotation benefits.

Mr Fels said he was interested in alternative ways of building soil health and was excited to be monitoring a five-year trial commenced on their farm by independent research company, South East Agronomy Research, for Carbon Ag that is investigating the banding of its C33 carbon compost product at seeding, as well as high concentrate liquid phosphorus and potassium fertiliser, PowerPK.

He said snake oils and remedies had been promoted previously without demonstrating replicated data and had not survived, whereas Carbon Ag was making this commitment over an extended period of time.

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"When you look at the total tonnes of carbon per hectare being applied, it's tiny and our scientific instinct is to say that can't increase soil carbon," Mr Fels said.

"Building carbon is incredibly hard to do in agricultural soils and so if it can it's a breakthrough, so I'll keep an open mind with the opportunity to test it in this trial and see in five years.''

The trial has been established on a consistent, shallow duplex soil type comprising a sandy layer over a dome clay base and was one of the drier areas of the Wheatbelt last season despite waterlogged conditions nearer to the coast.

Banded applications of the C33 carbon product and PowerPK liquid fertiliser are being compared with traditional seeding applications supplying about 15 kilograms a hectare of phosphorus and potassium and 5kg/ha of nitrogen, with another 100kg/ha of nitrogen topdressed after seeding.

The trial is also investigating substituting half of the traditional seeding application with the PowerPK, which, although it supplies less total volume of phosphorus and potassium, matched the similar yields achieved by all treatments across the site last year.

Mr Fels said the C33 and PowerPK treatments looked good in the trial last season, with noticeably improved plant health and vigour.

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"If I was set up for liquids at seeding, I would certainly be doing some strips with the PowerPK product, but my air cart is not," he said.

"But we have the trial here, so I will definitely be looking at that and, with people getting some good results using soil wetters at sowing as well, it's not to say we won't consider moving to using liquids again in four to five years.

"We will keep an eye on the carbon product in the trial over time as well and if any product shows an economic benefit or some other benefit that can be quantified, we would definitely phase it into the program.

"Ultimately, with any product, we need to see a gain for it.

"I'm not here to build soil carbon as an end in itself - the point is building the resilience and health of the soil so we can then grow better crops, which is also more sustainable and profitable.

"So, we are looking for a profitability edge and even if you see it's not doing it in the short-term, but you know it's building sustainability and profitability in the longer term, then by all means.

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"If applying the carbon product can build soil carbon, I know that is good for productivity and that it will increase our profitability over time.

"If it shows it can do that, there would be a strong case for bringing it in."

Mr Fels said the small amount of carbon being put in the soil was not going to increase soil carbon, but "if it does trigger some other processes, let's see".

We like to think we are a scientific industry and understand everything," he said.

"I think when it comes to soil health, we know almost nothing."

Mr Fels said there was a lot of mystery and mystique about it still.

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He said there was an element of things that we don't understand what was happening in there.

"So, some trial and error is required to see if we can trigger things to improve that process of carbon sequestration - that's the buzz word, but we're really about just building soil health.

"I feel like our deliberate strategy of using narrow rows, higher biomass varieties and concentrating on plant health is already helping and any edge we can get might just get us over the line for actually growing soil carbon.

"If it can trigger some biological processes, maybe it can prevent some of that carbon in cellulose from being released back into CO2 when it's broken down.

"If you are building soil biology that is capturing it a bit more and putting it into a soil form of stable carbon, who knows - let's wait and see.

"I'm no evangelist about it, but there's a bit in this 'we don't understand what is happening but it still helps approach' and I'm pleased to have a trial on our farm to see what it can do.

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"I certainly don't think we can answer all these questions with current scientific theory - because we can't.

"It's really pleasing that now in 2022, this is a bit more mainstream and part of our vernacular.

"There's a bit of pull coming from farmers in talking about soil health and that is making it easier for companies such as Carbon Ag to come out with a product and properly validate it.

"You can't call it a snake oil if it shows that it works in a proper scientific, replicated trial run by an independent company.

"Rather than just 'fert' and squirt, we are now looking a bit wider - bring it on as far as I'm concerned,'' he said.

After conducting an EM38 survey of the farm and deep soil coring in 2007, Mr Fels is keen to gain a carbon baseline for the farm and is working in conjunction with Carbon Ag to mount a Veris module on their seeding bar for the coming season that will achieve that.

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"I'm not interested in selling carbon credits, but I think it would be really good to do and there is now the technology to do it - so as we are seeding, we will be getting a carbon baseline of the farm,'' he said.

"If we do one day end up where carbon credits have a worthwhile commercial value, I want them sitting in our balance sheet.'

"In 20 years' time, it would be good to know what we have achieved and it will be good to compare with some of the 2007 results.

"I wouldn't mind betting soil carbon could still be going down slowly, because despite what politicians like to tell us, it's incredibly hard to grow and also with the constantly increasing yield productivity we seem to be getting off this country.

"We are probably 1t/ha better than 10 years ago on the same country with the same rainfall, which is huge.

"That doesn't come from nowhere and we are always playing catch-up with fertiliser rates to ensure we keep up to new productivity levels.

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"Some of that would be coming out of soil, so we need to be staying in front of it.

"Our big challenge now is to keep growing our soils as well as our production - if you can't measure it, you can't manage it,'' Mr Fels said.

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