The golden triangle around North Star has lost its shine with only a lack of rain to blame.
But a keen team of grain producers is banking on improved soil carbon to help lift their situation when the season breaks.
Ran Mitchell, Rod Farrow and Peter Dillon, “Leyland”, on the banks of Mungle Creek at North Star, have been thinking outside the square when it comes to increasing consistent productivity through soil health.
“Sustainability all starts with your organic carbon level” property owner Mr. Mitchell said, at the recent Moree Next Crop Forum, hosted by The Land and Good Fruit and Vegetables. Here he advocated for the retention of straw left over from harvested crop and crimping it back into the soil. Certainly livestock with manure and hooves do a good job, he said.
Mr Mitchell’s father gained the lease of Leyland’s chocolate vertisol country in 1936, following the successful introduction of the Cactoblastis Insect which had decimated an invasive prickly pear which previously dominated the Brigalow-Belah scrub.
At the time a requirement by the Lands Department demanded control of the remaining cactus and ringbarking scrub. Of the 1200 hectares cleared, a remnant remains, after Aboriginal labourers decided to move on.
I have always said the difference between a good farmer and a poor one was 25mm of rain. Perhaps we are nearly half way to being good farmers
In the years since there has been change. Livestock left the property in favour of broad acre farming. After the introduction of intensive cropping practice in the 1980s there was a noticeable loss of yield and protein in their grain. But Mr Mitchell was on the case a decade before that.
About 40 years ago he started to get serious about soil health and adopted no-till, with no stubble burning-off or baling.
“We did a simple soil absorption test at the time and filled bottomless drums with water on cropping land and the Brigalow scrub”, recalled Mr Mitchell. “Soil under the trees drained twice as fast as on our cultivated paddocks.”
When Ran’s father came to North Star soil carbon levels at Leyland probably were 3-5 percent and later when cultivation commenced there were so many worms that their long bodies tangled in the planting tynes.
After the introduction of four-wheel drive tractors and larger equipment which prepared land with more chemical fertilisers and sprays, soil carbon levels began to fall below one per cent and worms were hard to find. Where once Mungle Creek flowed serenely after rain, it began to run rapid and noisy from sudden in-flow.
While no-till cultivation has slowed the loss of carbon the situation remains far from stable, admits Mr Mitchell, who continues to experiment with best practice.
Application of worm juice began 19 years ago. There has been zero urea application for the past decade, although at Leyland they have been injecting liquid nutrient at sowing for the past eight seasons and applying nutrient foliars at key phases.
There are no fungicides sprayed on their cereal crops and insecticide use is minimal. In fact, they chase greater diversity of fungal spores by harvesting mulched bark and soil from a remnant woodland next to Mungle Creek and use that for bedding in the worm farm.
Worm production is run by long-time employee Rod Farrow who left the farm and district for almost a decade in the mid 1980s and on his return was shocked at the decline in yield and protein in crops right across the Golden Triangle.
Mr Farrow began experimenting with compost teas and worm juice, as advised by Dr Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web Institute, at Lismore, which works closely with Southern Cross University.
Another employee, Peter Dillon, recalls how the use of glyphosate on these prosperous self-mulching soils ramped up during the same period with application rates climbing from 250 to 500 millilitres per hectare to today’s rate of 2 litres per hectare.
It was clear to the Leyland team that agricultural methods had to be altered towards greater good.
Other innovations include crimping cereal straw, with farm-built unit, that helps lay the bulky material flat on the ground-for easy access to microbes.
Mr Mitchell has not been tempted to sell his straw off-farm, even in a season like this one where there is high demand and prices for straw.
The benefit to his soil by leaving it is simply too great.
“It is difficult to prove but I believe our yields have been about average in the district, however our protein is up”, he said.
“Our costs are down, our paddocks have evened-out quite a lot, and there is less variation in yield, protein, weight and screenings across the various soil types. We have had to spray less for disease and insects.
“In saying that, soil moisture is critical.”
A 2016 soil test showed 0.83% organic carbon in the top 10 centimetres. This year, during drought, the same paddock was tested and revealed a rise of 0.25% to 1.08% per hectare which indicated Leyland soil to contain 14 tonnes of carbon per hectare in that top 10cm layer.
As rule of thumb Mr Mitchell reckons his soil is now capable of holding 11.8mm more rainfall than in 2016.
“I have always said that the difference between a good farmer and a poor one was 25mm of rain,” mused Mr Mitchell. “Perhaps we are nearly half-way to being good.”