Friday, 31 August 2012

No-till Farming in the Douglas Daly Region

Chris and Phil Howie started to practice no-till farming at Maneroo Station about five years ago. Being from the Western Australian wheatbelt where no-till farming is common they were aware of the advantages it could provide, so borrowed a planter from a neighbour to trial it in the north. They then bought an old combine and converted it to no-till at a cost of less than $10,000.

Maneroo Station's converted no-till planter.

Chris said that no-till is a simpler approach to cropping compared to ploughing, where you leave tracks on wet paddock and often can’t get back on if it’s too wet.  

The Howie’s have had success with no-till using cavalcade, which doesn’t require a precise planting depth. However, crops that do require specific seeding depths may be more difficult to establish. Chris has also successfully established grain sorghum with no-till and trials with Jarra grass are promising and likely to be increased this year. Chris believes that disc machines are likely to be better suited to establishing grass with no-till (they currently run with tines).

Advantages of the no-till system include reduced fuel costs by operating with a planter and boom spray instead of a plough, harrows, and a seeder or super spreader. And being able to keep mulch on the ground reduces erosion and soil temperatures and increases water holding capacity of the soil. During dry spells common in January, crops in no-tilled paddocks have survived whereas some ploughed paddocks required replanting after being burnt off on the soil. This reduction in crop failures has significantly reduced costs or production.

Issues with no-till include some increased pest invasion such as grasshoppers and worms such as wire worms compared to ploughed country. While this caught the Howie’s out in the first year they now monitor for these pests and spray if outbreaks occur.

The amount of chemical spraying increases with no-till farming.  Four passes with a boom spray may be required (2 knockdowns, a broad-leaf spray and a pest spray) compared to a signal broad-leaf application with ploughing. Chris believes that farmers will need a good boom spray to farm without ploughing.

Finding the best approach to knocking grasses down with herbicide and managing mulch levels took some trial and error. It was difficult to get a good kill if the grass was too tall (e.g. above 30cm) because coverage of smaller shoots beneath the canopy was poor. They plant cavalcade in mid-December to mid-January and found that the best approach was to have two knock-down sprays, one in early December and again right before planting. And if there isn’t enough mulch being produced they might conduct an early broad-leaf knock-down to promote grass cover. They have also changed to coulters that can get through the mulch.

For more information, read chapters on conservation farming in "Striking the Balance" by clicking here.

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